Sometimes a sci-fi movie just barely misses the mark. Maybe it didn't hit quite the right tone, or it failed to provide satisfying answers to the thought-provoking questions it proposed. There are plenty of science fiction films that we enjoy despite their flaws, because there's some good in them, too. And then there's Mute.
From Netflix and Duncan Jones, Mute promised to be a return to form for the director and writer behind the instant classic 2009 mind-bender Moon (and, more recently, the less-than-classic Warcraft). Unfortunately, Mute is a cartoonish, nonsensical, tone-deaf, derivative, outrageously awful nightmare without a single redeeming quality. Bummer, right?
From beginning to end, Mute is simply hard to watch. It starts when a young Amish boy named Leo suffers a terrible boating accident that leaves his vocal cords permanently shredded. As an adult, Leo (Alexander Skarsgard) has emigrated to Germany. A brief fly-by on a newspaper clipping clumsily tells us that the German chancellor invited American Amish to relocate there en masse to bring a sense of "tradition" back to the country, and that's all the explanation we ever get for that.
After several early scenes of drippy, melodramatic flirting that would make Tommy Wiseau cringe, Leo sets out on a mission to find his missing girlfriend, a blue-haired cocktail waitress named Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh, whose acting is ridiculously, terribly over the top). Meanwhile, Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd, sporting an absurdly huge handlebar mustache) is an AWOL American soldier who does under-the-table surgeries for the mob in the hopes of getting papers for him and his daughter to return home. His friend Duck Teddington (Justin Theroux in an insanely bad wig) is also around, for reasons that become horrifyingly clear as the movie progresses.
Let's get one thing out of the way: Leo being Amish has absolutely no bearing on the story whatsoever, and so boils down to a pointless, distracting, silly quirk. He works as a bartender, where he doesn't hesitate to skillfully beat up drunk guys who hit on Naadirah. He uses technology, albeit reluctantly. In other words, he could have been any random schmuck and the only thing about him they'd need to change is his suspenders.
Leo being mute doesn't really affect the story either; it just makes many scenes unnecessarily long as we wait for him to scribble his side of each conversation on a notepad. His lack of speech carries no thematic weight, and it never even hinders him plot-wise. It does have one positive effect, though, at least for Skarsgard: He doesn't have to say any of the lines in this terrible script.
Here's a small sampling of actual lines from this movie, all from relatively early on since the entire thing is like this and at a certain point you have to stop transcribing every single thing that every single character says:
"That's a real sexy hood ornament you've got dancing up there tonight."
"If my mom tried to stop me talking, I would f*** her up. And she's in a wheelchair."
"He doesn't need words. He's kind. Why wouldn't I love him?"
"School girls, babe. Itty bitty titties and smooth little p***ies. Then they grow up."
That last is said with a big sigh by Justin Theroux's character, a pediatric surgeon who's also a pedophile. The line is accompanied by an actual upskirt shot of a nearby school girl, the camera lingering on her behind as she bends over to pick up a bowling ball.
Mute treats Duck's preference for young girls as a joke for the movie's first half, like Matthew McConaughey's famous quote in Dazed and Confused about how high school girls always stay the same age, no matter how old you get. Except Theroux's character is literally filming pre-pubescent young girls in their underwear at his practice. The only thing that will make your stomach turn more than that fact is the flippant way the movie plays these scenes, almost as if it's supposed to be funny.
Halfway through, this subplot seems like it's about to take a major turn. Cactus--who has a young daughter--confronts Duck about his pedophilia, telling him firmly that he has just got to cut it out. Then they go to the mall, where they get drunk and steal some peanuts, like the previous scene never happened. As they leave, Cactus screams a homophobic slur at a security guard who confronts them.
Go ahead and re-read those sentences a couple more times and let them sink in. Now consider for a second that the entire movie is this bad. The biggest mystery is how Jones convinced these actors to go along with any of it.
Mute's futuristic setting itself has some promise, but it's utterly squandered. The movie doesn't have a single original idea, simply ripping shamelessly from great sci-fi and cyberpunk films that have come before it. Flying cars? Grungy neon? Sexy robots? Drones? A seedy city underbelly populated by prostitutes in crazy pseudo-futuristic outfits? Check, check, and check--although Mute could have easily been set in the present, or even in the past, since not one of these shallow sci-fi trappings has a single tangible effect on the story.
As Mute's plodding, meandering two-hour length comes to a close across multiple increasingly nonsensical climactic showdowns, nothing else will strike you so much as the baffling, swirling, inexplicable, disgusting mess of it all. Nothing anyone in this movie does makes a shred of sense, either logically or emotionally. Every single character is a one-dimensional caricature with no redeeming qualities. The effects look cheap. The score is forgettable. It's casually offensive, vulgar, gross, and mean for absolutely no reason. And it's unabashedly unaware--or uncaring--of the fact that you shouldn't play scenes about pedophiliac pediatricians and domestic abuse with the same weightless flippancy as a joke about robot strippers or a less-than-subtle cameo from Moon's Sam Rockwell.
And by the way, the fact that Mute and Moon apparently take place in the same "universe" doesn't make Mute any better (although this movie's existence may retroactively make Moon seem worse).
Mute is a bad joke about itself, the movie version of a Weird Al Yankovic song (an "Amish Paradise" sequel set in the future?), only if the filmmaker wasn't aware it was supposed to be a parody. It's like Mute underwent so many rewrites that the scenes and characters no longer match up--or like it's a first draft that never underwent a single edit, though considering how long Jones was trying to get this made--12 years!--the former seems more likely. At least now we have an idea why he had such a hard time.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Paul Rudd is kind of funny once or twice||Nonsensical, stupid plot|
|Poorly written script filled with cringe-inducing lines|
|Ugly, unoriginal world|
|Cartoonish, one-dimensional characters|
|Totally derivative without a single original thought|
|Flippant portrayal of weighty subject matter|