Duncan Jones has shown himself to be a very capable director of short-story-ish sci-fi in films like Moon and Source Code, but he tests the limits of human patience with Mute, a flabbergasting techno-noir wannabe that follows a silent, wood-whittling Amish lug (Alexander Skarsgård) as he tries to find his missing Iranian girlfriend in near-future Berlin without the help of a computer. The material skews grotesque (fetish-bots, pedophilia, Liquid Sky make-up) and seems super personal, a long-gestating project that doubles as an homage to its director and co-writer’s famous dad, the late David Bowie. (It marks the first time that Jones has used his father’s music in film; naturally, it’s all from “Heroes”.) But with an insipid script, no narrative line, and a cast of unlikable characters, Mute has to get by on looks—neon Cold War hand-me-downs with all the workmanship of journeyman TV.
It’s never clear how Skarsgård’s Leo ended up bartending at the strip club owned by the Afro-Russian gangster Maksim (Gilbert Owuor), apart from some references to an Amish return migration. (Shouldn’t he be in the Rhineland, then?) His Amishness only matters as a way of dragging out the plot. But the film still starts promisingly, as a cut whisks us from the childhood accident that took away Leo’s voice to a night in Berlin—a spare-parts reproduction of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, introduced to the sound of Philip Glass’ Bowie-inspired “Heroes” symphony. A competent exercise in “show, don’t tell” film school basics, the sequence follows Leo from a public pool to his little apartment and then to the street outside Maksim’s joint, where he meets up with Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), a blue-haired living Nagel print who waits tables at the club.
The viewer will soon learn to be thankful for Leo’s silence; it’s a break from the endless, pointless, seemingly unedited nattering of every other character in the film. Originally written in the 2000s as a regular Brit-crime movie (it really shows), Mute has a dragging, repetitive structure, often randomly cutting from Leo to the vulgar, mustachioed Cactus (Paul Rudd), an AWOL American medic who patches up gunshot wounds for the Russian mob with the help of his beyond-skeezy buddy Duck (Justin Theroux). Presumably, these two caricatures of ugly Americanism (complete with Vietnam-era fashion sense) have something to do with Naadirah’s eventual disappearance. But the plot of Mute requires every character to be slow on the uptake, as though they were getting the exposition over a 28K modem.
For at least part of the film, Cactus comes across as the only character with a believable motivation (which eventually flies out the window): He’s working for Maksim’s crew in exchange for a couple of forged passports so that he and his young daughter can sneak back into the United States. He’s an irresponsible dad who nonetheless seems to love his daughter, and in case it isn’t obvious what possibly complicated feelings Jones might be trying to work out in this otherwise derivative and misanthropic boondoggle, he also carries around a Bowie knife. (The film bears an ending dedication to both Bowie and the nanny who effectively raised Jones during his father’s drug-fueled years.)
As in his big-budget fantasy dud Warcraft, Jones demonstrates no knack for grand spectacle. His sweet spot is in more cramped points of view, and Mute’s Berlin only comes alive in a few sequences that glimpse the city handheld from the front seat of a car, with tanklike garbage trucks rumbling by and towers looming overhead—a cool, interesting way of showing the audience an elaborate futurescape on a limited budget. But the film ignores all the potential commentary and conflict in its pulpy, hyperbolic premise (tradition technology, urban contradictions, etc.), offering only trivialities, superficialities, and contempt. It has as little to say as its protagonist. Possibly less, even.