Critics trashed Duncan Jones’ Netflix original film, Mute, as an unfocused mess of disconnected ideas, and they couldn’t be more wrong.
Mute is a sci-fi, noir film with great characters, a fully-realized world, and lots of interesting concepts. However, similar to many of Netflix’s originals, its core story wanders and then just kind of ends. This same storytelling problem is shared by many of Netflix’s originals, which are generally solo- or duo-vision projects (aka auteurism) in desperate need of third-party script doctoring.
This is the story of Leo, a bartender and artist who resides in a dystopian, near-future Berlin that’s packed with misfits and maniacs. Leo suffered a horrible injury as a child, which robbed him of his voice; his family’s Amish beliefs, and their aversion to technology, prevented him from receiving a restorative medical procedure. For whatever reason, Leo now works in a skeevy, mob-operated strip joint with his girlfriend — a waitress with a mysterious past. This is classic noir setup, and its Blade Runner-looking world really sets it apart.
The juxtaposition of a technology-fearing Amish man living within this glitzy, greasy urban squalor is fascinating. We learn that Leo is a kind soul, but he’s capable of abrupt violence when people close to him are harmed. As the story unfolds, Leo encounters amoral, ex-patriot Americans working for ruthless organized crime figures, who are all tangled together by the loosest of threads. It’s a messy plot, to be sure, but the performances and direction are solid and well worth the ride.
Mute is far from perfect, but it’s hardly the disaster that critics made it out to be. Jones’ script simply needed another set of eyes to improve its themes and shave its runtime (this is a 2-hour movie that should have been 90-minutes). What’s surprising is that the sci-fi elements are really pushed to the background; Jones’ characters and their mysteries could have worked as a western or a costume-drama — the setting really only reinforces the isolation of its unspeaking and tech-challenged anti-hero.
The action and drama in Mute are rich and nuanced. By the end you want to know more about its characters and its world — a sentiment many applied to Netflix’s other recent original, Bright, which was also savaged by critics. The strengths of Mute are a testament to the growth of its writer-director Duncan Jones, who has an eye and an ear for this material, even if his storytelling does meander.
Netflix is quickly becoming a home for maverick filmmakers like Jones. Mute is a throwback, reminiscent of a young Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, or Lucas. It shares the same rough edges of their early works, such as The Rain People, Mean Streets, Duel, and American Graffiti… but also some of the same raw energy too.
Mute is just as ragged and pulpy as those aforementioned 70s films, and illustrates that Jones is in the same league as those noted auteurs.
By the end of Mute, nobody really got what they wanted, although many of them got what they deserved — classic noir. And everyone who made it to the end was forever changed. Mute is a helluva ride; it’s tense and grim and damned rough at times, but it’s also something unique and engaging.
It’s unclear why mainstream critics hammered this movie — it’s certainly superior to a lot of other better reviewed sci-fi (I rate it above Blade Runner 2049, by a wide margin).
Mute isn’t for everyone, and maybe that’s the point. Netflix gives their creators a lot of rope, and the results are often mixed. But these originals contain a voice and an edge that’s undeniable. If Mute is for you, great, if it isn’t, Netflix has several dozen other originals in the pipeline that might. It’s probably why they’re winning.