Brian Fantana was tired of being a lowly sidekick to legendary anchorman Ron Burgundy.
After years of following commands and fighting rival news reporters, he wanted to be the hero of his own story. While buying some pungent new black market cologne in some warehouse, he hears of a cryogenic facility that can freeze people for decades with no side effects. Fantana goes to sleep, wakes up in the distant future, takes up surgery, and renames himself Cactus Bill.
This should have been the plot to the new Netflix movie Mute. Paul Rudd is in the film, his facial hair is Fantana-esque, his name is even Cactus Bill, but the story itself is something far less interesting.
The true protagonist of Duncan Jones’ newest directorial feature is Alexander Skarsgård, an actor who is still making room on his award shelf for his recent performance in Big Little Lies. Skarsgård plays an Amish bartender named Leo, a man who lost his voice at a young age after a boating accident. While living in hyper-futuristic Berlin, he falls in love with a cocktail waitress named Naadirah, played by Seyneb Saleh. One night Naadirah is captured, and two mob surgeons named Cactus Bill and Duck (played by Rudd and Justin Theroux) are somehow involved.
Mute is a complete misfire. The failure of Mute can be described by its failure to emulate its influences. The world that Jones creates has none of the creativity or nuance of a city in the Blade Runner universe. The setting is not “its own character,” and it honestly doesn’t add anything to the story other than providing an excuse for Jones’ characters to constantly be lit in neon. Every detail of the world is bland and uninspired.
The inarguable, unequivocal #1 sci-fi sin is to never, under any circumstances, make boring robots. Mute’s robots are not only boring, they are only used as lewd dancers in night clubs, because that it evidently what a sci-fi audience wants to see? Note to young filmmakers: If a Justin Timberlake music video has more entertaining dancing robots than your sci-fi movie, something is probably wrong with your sci-fi movie.
Mute’s largest misfire is its star. Skarsgård does not have the stoic heroism of John Wick or the vengeful aggression of Liam Neeson in Taken. He does not pull off the (understandably difficult) task of expressing himself without using words. Nothing is compelling about a man whose only form of communication is scribbling in a notebook.
A dull protagonist can, however, be redeemed if he does know a particular set of skills. Skarsgård has the size and the physicality to do some damage, but surprisingly the action scenes are almost nonexistent. There is no large action set piece or even a small action set piece. Those who want to see Mute’s action scenes don’t need anything more than a link to the trailer.
The only two characters that are blessed with any semblance of personality are Rudd and Theroux. Their lighthearted rapport, along with Rudd’s stache, are the only elements keeping Mute somewhat watchable, until a particular character choice is made that does not fit with the movie at all. The two quippy criminals are instantly irredeemable, leaving the movie with zero fun characters.
Duncan Jones should have waited to release Mute. More specifically, he should have waited until he saw Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. In that movie, Sally Hawkins plays a vivacious mute who knows how to express herself to everyone and everything. Her range of facial expressions convey her childlike joy and sense of wonder. The Shape of Water is a flawed (and slightly overrated) film, but Hawkins’ performance is lovable and relatable. In Mute, Skarsgård is left to only show varying degrees of sulk.
When talking about Leo, Naadirah says, “He doesn’t need words.” Giving words to Leo would not have saved this movie, but it might have helped.