Duncan Jones’ gift for putting fresh, affecting slants on sci-fi scenarios, as he did in Source Code and especially his haunting debut, Moon, goes only so far in Mute, an original story he’s long wanted to film. The feature, which is receiving a limited theatrical platform as it begins streaming, is richly imagined and well-played by a cast of movie stars and intriguing new faces. But the handsomely downbeat atmospherics overwhelm its themes of love, parenthood, crime and punishment. The narrative doesn’t quite coalesce, and except for a few moments late in the proceedings, it doesn’t deliver the grim, indelible shivers of the best noir.
Yet with its vividly realized meld of technological advance and social decay, the Berlin-set drama abounds in striking imagery of a believable future. Beneath the dazzling high-rise cityscape, mobsters carve out their territories, citizens are left to their own devices and streamlined drones sweep through the streets to deliver restaurant orders. Mostly, though, Mute feels like a hyperactive pop culture pastiche, a tip of the hat to a wide range of references. Blade Runner and Total Recall are among the most obvious as Jones, cinematographer Gary Shaw and production designer Gavin Bocquet immerse us in the neon-drenched grit of a mid-21st century city’s international underworld.
In that nighttime realm, Alexander Skarsgard plays Leo, the unlikely bartender at a nightclub called Foreign Dreams — unlikely because amid all the crime and sex, he’s a gentle Amish artist, mute since a childhood accident. In addition to the sea-creature sketches that express his deep connection with water, he creates intricate wooden carvings that remind his girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), of fairy tales — more evidence of a kind of Old World purity in the man. But he’s drawn into the netherworld after Naadirah, a soulful blue-haired cocktail waitress with a secret, goes missing.
Leo’s search brings him closer to the crooked paths of two Americans, AWOL military surgeons who practice their black-market medicine in the icy light of a basement lair. With their nonstop quips, verbal sparring and ‘70s-era tonsorial choices, they’re a deranged riff on Hawkeye and Trapper John (the medics in M*A*S*H), or maybe characters who wandered in from a Thomas Pynchon novel.
One of them, Paul Rudd’s extravagantly mustachioed, relentlessly sarcastic Cactus Bill, is hell-bent on securing papers so that he and his young daughter (played by Mia-Sophie and Lea-Marie Bastin) can return to the States. The milder but not necessarily more benign Duck (an almost unrecognizable Justin Theroux) is a brothel regular. The two served together in Afghanistan — where, a half-century from now, there’s apparently still no end in sight for U.S. military involvement.
In their early scenes together, Skarsgard and Saleh create a compelling bond, if perhaps a lopsided one. It’s clear that Naadirah is a balm for Leo’s emotional isolation and sees him for who he is, while most people can’t get past his disability. But when she tries to tell him her secret and he insists on not knowing, she’s reduced to something of a narrative device rather than a fully fleshed character. However intense or frantic Leo might become, his search doesn’t propel the drama or hold it together the way it should.
As the story, written by Michael Robert Johnson and Jones, moves among set pieces both lovely and gruesome, with colorful turns from a supporting cast that includes Gilbert Owuor, as the nightclub’s owner, and Robert Sheehan, as a flamboyant prostitute, the characters function mainly as collections of extreme traits. It’s not their desires and actions that form the movie’s connective tissue so much as the combination of strong design work and Clint Mansell’s elegant score, with soundtrack excerpts from compositions by David Bowie, the director’s late father.
It becomes clear only in the final moments what Jones was reaching for, and his intent is underscored in the closing-credits dedication to David Jones (aka Bowie) and Marion Skene, the filmmaker’s nanny when he was a child of divorce. All the genre bells and whistles, however finely crafted, get in the way of the story’s undercurrents of longing and grief.
Production Companies: Liberty Films in association with Studio Babelsberg
Cast: Alexander Skarsgard, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Robert Sheehan, Gilbert Owuor, Jannis Niewohner, Rob Kazinsky, Noel Clarke, Dominic Monaghan, Andrzej Blumenfeld, Mia-Sophie Bastin, Lea-Marie Bastin, Nikki Lamborn, Anja Karmanski, Florence Kasumba
Director: Duncan Jones
Screenwriters: Michael Robert Johnson, Duncan Jones
Story by Duncan Jones
Producers: Stuart Fenegan, Ted Sarandos
Executive producers: Pauline Fischer, Collin Creighton, Charles J.D. Schlissel, Trevor Beattie
Director of photography: Gary Shaw
Production designer: Gavin Bocquet
Costume designer: Ruth Myers
Editors: Laura Jennings, Barrett Heathcote
Composer: Clint Mansell
Casting directors: Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham