After almost a decade of work as a director for hire, Duncan Jones makes a return to more personal projects.
Mute, which released on Netflix this week, is a neo-noir that draws on everything from Blade Runner to Total Recall. A hard-boiled, neon-lit sci-fi set in a vaguely futuristic Berlin, it’s more ambitious in scope but notably less developed than Moon, with which Jones made his directorial debut back in 2009.1, the film betrays a film school student’s lack of sophistication.2
The film stars Alexander Skarsgård as Leo, a mute Amish bartender with a vague affinity with water, whose paramour, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh3), vanishes; compelling him to go in search of her, armed with nothing more than a notepad, a pencil, and a look of plaintive desperation.4 Meanwhile, in a separate plot strand, two AWOL GIs, Cactus (a Hawaiian-shirted, moustachioed Paul Rudd; intense) and Duck (a sweater-wearing, wig-sporting Justin Theroux; mild), kill time waiting for their ticket out by performing underground surgeries for a local mob boss.
Left to his own devices, wandering through what looks like the leftover sets from another Netflix production, Altered Carbon, Leo’s character is so underwritten that to call him a cipher is to denigrate the work of hardworking encryption codes. 5 Rudd and Theroux, meanwhile, seem to have been lifted from another slightly more engaging film: think M*A*S*H* by way of Naked Lunch and The Big Lebowski; only Jesus Quintana has been promoted to co-lead.6
There’s no urgency or atmosphere on display. A might-have-been car chase where Leo bumps and scrapes along in a vintage Mercedes while trailing after a flying taxi limps along with the directorial equivalent of a dead leg. Flashes of idiosyncrasy, like Dominic Monaghan’s brief appearance as a Geisha-attired South African pervert with a coterie of polished wooden sex robots9 Follies should at least have the luxury of being grand.10
That Jones, who was once acclaimed as a bold new voice in British film-making off the back of Moon11 here proves so much less than the sum of his influences can’t help but feel like a regression; especially given the amount of time it’s taken to reach us.12 While I once lamented the lack of an arena mid-budget genre films from interesting directors, Netflix’s apparent lack of oversight has so far proven a recipe for indulgence.13 Simply calling back visually to some of the great sci-fi films does not in itself make for great sci-fi14 nor does repurposing figures from noir and ’70s TV; especially when the film-making on display is otherwise a bit sophomoric.15
Simply put, Mute isn’t a story worth the telling.
- Reportedly because he was unable to get this funded.
- I actually attended a Q&A with Duncan Jones during my MA at the London Film School, of which he’s a graduate. One of my proudest moments is getting geek cred from him for spotting that it’s Scott Bakula who voices the Jake Gyllenhaal’s dad on the phone. In all fairness the “Oh boy” is a bit of a giveaway.
- Blue hair, white skin, no personality.
- And occasionally a bedpost carved with dolphins. Don’t ask.
- His largely bewildered, one-note performance here serves mainly to impress upon us just how remarkable Sally Hawkins’ similarly silent, water-connected turn was in Shape Of Water. The most interesting thing about him is the way his neck undulates as he chugs water from a beer mug.
- There’s a touch, too, of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd to their homoerotic codependency, though the film treats this with uncertain seriousness.
- Twin Pinocchios (Pinocchi?) with enormous knobbly dildos.7, can’t help relieve the monotony. Much as I hated Valerian for its conceptual unwieldiness, Mute is no better in its (budgetary?) constraint, though I certainly enjoyed it more.8Then again, only, perhaps, because I had the option to pause it, get up, walk around, make dinner, without having to step off the balcony of the Superscreen at the Empire Leicester Square.
- Right, Luc?
- While it’s perhaps unfair to compare director’s career paths – people are people, they’ve got their own shit going on – just look at Rian Johnson, who started off in the film noir genre with Brick – one of my favourite films of 2005 – and has now gone on to bring that same complexity in deconstructing Star Wars in The Last Jedi.
- In terms of expectation, this was, for me, second only to The Man Who Killed Don Quixote; which will hopefully prove somewhat more rewarding when it finally arrives in cinemas sometime late this year or early next.
- Between this and The Cloverfield Paradox – a film so dull I didn’t even bother to review with a title apparently coined to try and explain away the fact the film doesn’t make any sense (“It’s a paradox – duh.”) – Netflix aren’t doing their well to become de facto king of streaming sci-fi. Hopefully Annihilation will see them garlanded (sorry) at last.
- It doesn’t help that cinematographer Gary Shaw and that production designer Gavin Bocquet only get a single shot where they’re able to actually show us the neon-bedecked skyscrapers – that we mostly take for granted are looming over the shadowy streets – in their full, if derivative, glory.
- A courtroom of Moon‘s Sam Bell(s) (Sam Rockwell), – thereby putting Mute explicitly in the same universe – only highlights the gulf between this and Jones’ previous work.