A scifi tale by virtue of its setting, but an old-school film noir at heart thanks to its story, Mute is a puzzle with eccentric pieces that eventually all fit together—perhaps a bit too neatly, given its fondness for jagged edges. But its love of sleazy neon and some unusual themes do much to make up for its contrivances.
Duncan Jones’ latest is set in the same universe as his 2009 debut, Moon, ahead of an as-yet-unnamed third film in his planned trilogy. The films have a loose connection that we won’t spoil here, but it’s not a giveaway to say that Mute takes place right after the events of Moon—so, sometime soon after 2035. But it begins 30 years earlier, at the scene of a boating accident that leaves a boy named Leo half-drowned and fully mute. That brief moment sets up just about everything we need to know about Leo in the movie’s present (where he’s played by Alexander Skarsgård). Also—told you there were some unusual themes—he’s Amish.
Though he’s not totally devout, he’s still the most lo-fi person in Mute’s futuristic version of Berlin; it’s a grimy place, full of tawdry bars, brothels, faux-American diners, and tech that’s seemingly used solely for instant gratification. Leo, who flexes his Amish woodworking skills in his spare time, is definitely the odd man out. Granted, he’d already be unique because he can’t talk, but being freakin’ Amish just ups the ante. That, and the fact that he appears to be the only person in the city who’s motivated by the purest of causes: True love.
Leo is an earnest guy in a bad town, and since this is a noir tale, the object of his affections goes missing early on. His wordless search for his beloved, a blue-haired beauty named Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh)—of course, he carries an actual photograph of her around, being stubbornly old-fashioned—leads him into some dark places, though he’s not a complete outsider in that world. Leo and Naadirah meet while working at a shifty nightclub called Foreign Dreams, a place where, of course, Berlin’s foreign transplants mingle and engage in various black-market activities alongside robotic go-go dancers.
That said, a boring old coffee shop is where Leo first crosses paths with Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd), another American expat who’s on his own desperate quest. It’s a seemingly random encounter that echoes throughout the rest of the story at louder and louder frequencies.
Cactus, fond of cigars and loud Aloha shirts, is a surgeon and former military man who served in the Middle East with Duck (Justin Theroux), a fellow doctor who now has a successful practice crafting bionic body parts. That said, he’s happy to help his best buddy mend bullet-riddled gangsters in an underground clinic, a gig Cactus has only taken because he’s desperate to get the money and necessary documents to flee the country. (To reveal why would be saying too much.) The dynamic of Cactus and Duck’s friendship is one of the weirdest things about Mute, but it makes a strange kind of sense. They became friends under extreme circumstances, and though they may not like each other all the time, there’s a bond there that can’t be broken. Also, they’re both total assholes. Straight up.
Cactus and Leo, on the other hand, are total opposites—and the fact that Leo keeps popping up like a bad penny spins the already rage-filled Cactus into an even more dangerous fury. He provides necessary contrast to Skarsgård’s silent character—they are two tightly coiled men pursuing their own very specific, very urgent agendas who otherwise couldn’t be more different in every way. Also, it must be said that while Skarsgård is fine as the lovelorn Leo, seeing the normally likeable Rudd rip into such an obnoxious and morally corrupt character is one of Mute’s biggest selling points. Why is he rocking a 1970s porn ’stache in a futuristic cyberpunk movie? Well, why not?
Jones’s story for Mute—he shares a screenwriting credit with Michael Robert Johnson—ends up tilting way more toward film noir than scifi in the end. It unfolds on a way smaller scale than something like Blade Runner 2049, the most high-profile recent example of scifi noir. Mute feels like a much more personal story, putting a small network of damage-prone relationships under a microscope and discovering that emotions can be just as raw and real even when the people feeling them are surrounded by artificial flash.
Mute is not a perfect movie. A lot of its quirkier beats end up fitting too neatly into its conclusion, which can feel a bit forced once the story’s dominoes start falling over. (The woodworking thing? Yeah, it comes back in a big way.) But if Mute feels tenuously tied to Moon in terms of story, there’s a deeper connection in that both films take the time to question what makes us truly human, no matter the circumstances. Mute also offers a downbeat yet relatable vision of the future, with tech that seems eminently plausible (food delivery via drone!) as well as some more worrisome projections, like the idea that genuinely good people are probably an endangered species.
Mute debuts today, February 23, on Netflix.