“Where is this going?” is a moviegoer response that only counts as positive if a level of engaged, imaginative suspense is involved. Duncan Jones’ “Mute,” on the other hand, about a non-speaking Amish-raised man (Alexander Skarsgård) pulled into a seedy underworld, provokes that question because it’s a convoluted, empty mess.
A dystopian noir that’s neither especially compelling as a vision of the future nor as a hard-bitten mystery — much less as a quirky tale about a woodwork-gifted anti-hero — its arrival on Netflix this weekend suggests that the content-ravenous streaming service add a new category alongside “Trending Now” and “See It Again”: “Because You Literally Have Nothing Else To Watch.”
It’s also another solid argument for talented filmmakers letting their dream projects stay unmade, and therefore perfect in their heads. For Jones, who excited the sci-fi-jaded with his intelligently massaged, character-driven debut “Moon,” and even received a pass from fans after a tempting swerve toward the land of Dumb Fantasy Juggernauts (“Warcraft”), “Mute” has apparently been that story he could never let go. Its realization, however, lacks all the attributes one saw in “Moon”: smarts, humanity, cleverness, and craft. It’s legitimately difficult, from scene to scene, to determine what exactly about the increasingly lurid and far-fetched “Mute” made it necessary to be told.
At first, though, there are glimmers of curious eccentricity: a boy, floating in water, bleeding from an ugly throat wound; people in a rowboat screaming; a kapp-wearing Amish girl staring from shore. Twenty years later, the adult Leo (Skarsgård) — silent since the accident because his parents’ religion forbade voice-saving surgery — lives in a “Blade Runner”-style Berlin of flying transport, choked and grimy streets of mixed cultures, and pulsating technology.
But he’s a proud Luddite, his apartment a shrine to artisan objects and outmoded technology rather than digital accoutrements. It’s a homey sweetness that appeals to his affectionate, mysterious, blue-haired girlfriend Naadiyah (Seyned Saleh), who waits tables for wealthy louts at Foreign Dreams, the boisterous, vice-friendly nightclub where Leo bartends. When not losing his cool defending her honor against the creepier clientele, he whittles decorative balls of wood for her and shyly smiles; she bats her eyes and says he makes her feel beautiful.
She also adds, one night after he reveals the intricately carved fourposter bed he’s making for them, “You don’t know me, Leo.” Which is, of course, never a good sign when all around these unlikely lovebirds are gangsters, sex workers, and rich, kinky criminals. The next day Naadiyah disappears, and a distraught Leo, armed only with an old smartphone she gave him as a gift, takes matters into his own hands.
Were Leo’s treacherous quest learning about Naadiyah’s secret life the only narrative thrust in the screenplay by Jones and Michael Robert Johnson (“Sherlock Holmes”), “Mute” might have had a shot at being a viciously single-minded vengeance thriller. Instead, perhaps because Leo by himself isn’t much to hang a movie on, we also get the jammed-in parallel story of a pair of skeevy, wiseacre underworld surgeons and ex-military besties: Cactus Bill and Duck, played by a walrus-‘stached, dyspeptic Paul Rudd and a blonde-shagged, louche Justin Theroux, as though an improv crowd had shouted out “M*A*S*H!” “Tarantino!” “Your careers are safe!”
Skarsgård proves woefully dull tailing obvious suspects and pointing to words on paper with routine expressiveness; Jones seems stymied making his own gimmicky protagonist interesting as a communication-challenged detective. But the warped, unfunny Rudd-Theroux scenes, which center on Rudd’s easily angered character’s desire to secure fake IDs and leave Berlin with his young daughter, are a crude overcorrection in maintaining our interest, and they betray a flippant callousness about the movie’s tawdrier elements. (The inclusion of one kind of sex crime as a morality-juxtaposing device feels particularly exploitative.)
Even worse, Jones’s direction is uniformly sloppy, both not terribly evocative of his present-future milieu when design elements and VFX take over, and mired in dull close-ups and choppy editing when stuck in rooms with people talking. As Jones corrals his various moving parts — underdeveloped peripheral characters, cheesy dialogue, perfunctory action — “Mute” recalls the rushed superficiality of weekly television rather than the richer, more textured gratification of feature filmmaking.
As “Mute” lopes along before reaching its climactic, drawn-out confrontations, it grasps for emotional relevance about everything from war to love to parenting to loss of innocence, and leaves one mostly wondering why it takes place in the future. (It’s no “Babylon Berlin,” also on Netflix, which makes 1929 Germany into a time-travel smorgasbord of era-rich sleaze.)
Ultimately, it’s hard to sense the same director who embedded us so thoroughly in the carefully heightened atmosphere of philosophical adventure that was “Moon.” Here, a Sam Rockwell cameo glimpsed in a news clip detailing a Lunar Industries imbroglio clues us in that “Mute” is set in the same world as that earlier film. But the connection doesn’t extend, regrettably, to the filmmaker behind both movies.