For those who've followed the career trajectory of Duncan Jones, they'll know that Mute has been something of a passion project for the director.
Originally slated as his first film, he eventually shelved it when he wrote the screenplay for Moon - his actual first film - an thoughtful sci-fi film that had a fantastic central performance from Sam Rockwell and a great soundtrack by Clint Mansell. The film drew on the production design of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Peter Hyams' Outland, but played it more like a sort-of philosophical drama than anything else. His next film was Source Code, a pacey sci-fi thriller that'd probably be lazily described nowadays as working better as an episode of Black Mirror than anything else. Warcraft, for better or worse, was his graduation into blockbuster territory and beset with studio politics, rewrites and the cloud of expectation from having two successful indie films under his belt. When Warcraft failed, Mute seemed like the perfect remedy and a way for Jones to reacquaint audiences with his style.
Sadly, Mute is so buried in style and so lacking in substance that there's not much to cling to. The story is set in a futuristic Berlin that looks more like the set of a cheap, one-season sci-fi show from the '90s where we find Leon (Alexander Skarsgard), a formerly Amish bartender who was rendered mute in a childhood boating accident and is in love with Naad (Seyneb Saleh), a waitress who goes missing and sets Leon on a journey to find her. Running parallel to this is Cactus (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux), two Army surgeons who work for a local criminal gang in exchange for money and, for Rudd's character, a chance to leave Berlin and return to the US with a new identity with his daughter. For a film that's just over two hours long, the story moves at a crawl and while it may think that it's building layers and artfully misdirecting, it's not nearly as subtle or clever as it thinks it is.
If anything, Mute's screenplay has some truly daft moments and reveals that may have read on the page as profound, but play out in a baffling way on screen. Moreover, the technology that's on display in the film's perceived future works in a bizarre way. An emotionally pregnant moment between Rudd and Theroux's character is punctuated - without even so much as a visual cue - by a phonecall from another party. The first time it happens, you'll almost find yourself scanning back through the film to see if you missed something or if it's just some kind of artistic choice. Not only that, the central character's disability forms some of the most frustrating moments in the film - to the point where you're wondering how he's managed to get this far in life and not had to have dealt with some of the problems he has to figure out in the film.
Leaving the numerous plotholes and goofs aside, the way in which Jones commands the camera and works with lighting and production design shows that he is a capable director who just needs a good screenplay to work with. There are some gorgeous shots in this film, the kind that'll turn up on cinematography appreciation lists and the like, but the context around them is so poor that it feels like it's a disservice to the beautiful visuals. The same goes for the cast assembled, all definitely game for Jones' work and giving it their best, but let down by some bizarre and clunky dialogue. Rudd, in particular, gives a truly menacing performance and Theroux is cast against type and has some of the most unnerving scenes in the film. Anyone's who seen The Shape Of Water and Sally Hawkins' performance in The Shape Of Water will know that spoken dialogue isn't needed to give a full and emotive performance, however nobody seems to have told this to Skarsgard who seems to be doing most of his acting by widening his eyes at every available opportunity.
While Mute may have some unusual concepts at work and a strong visual palette, the story and screenplay is too convoluted and mishandled to be anything other than a 126-minute effects reel.