By the end of Mute, I was reminded of a few things i’ve picked up on my lifelong journey through cinema. Things about passion projects, ambition, and a moment from the 1998 film Zero Effect — a great semi-film noir piece and the debut of filmmaker Jake Kasdan. In the film, a line of dialogue delivered by Ben Stiller is a line that, for some reason, has always stuck with me: “There aren’t any good guys. There aren’t evil guys and innocent guys. There’s just a bunch of guys.” I use this line in the context of characters and the more I thought of Mute, the more that line kept clinging to me. So I took it, along with the other reminders, swished it around in a bag that’s been poking my brain more and more.
Some movies, like Mute, are not going to be clear cut in any areas, and their potential might be difficult to see because they don’t have a clear purpose or intent at first glance. But does that determine their worth as simply “good” or “bad”?
The tale of Mute begins with the introduction of Leo (first as a child, then seen played by Alexander Skarsgård). A boat accident tears out the part of his body that gives him a voice, and while the doctors say it can be repaired, his family rejects the treatment because it interferes with their Amish ways. Prayer doesn’t work, so Leo grows up a mute, keeping most of his customs in check while growing up in a cybernetic future in Berlin. He’s in love with a waitress, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) and they work together at a bar, run and populated by the most popular of the criminal underworld, including an unpredictable AWOL doctor named Cactus (Paul Rudd) and his scummy partner in knife, Duck (Justin Theroux). After a chain of events starts off via an unwanted man’s advances, Leo wakes up one morning to realize Naadirah is gone. He sets out to find her, and he goes down paths he couldn’t imagine in his wildest nightmares.
Through that description alone, one would figure this is the primary story and that we’d be spending a lot of time with Leo, with the rest of the characters coming along interacting in some way or another. Granted, it’s the conventional way, but it’s something that’s to be expected. To do something different with that launch point is definitely admirable, and always welcome, but with Mute, it’s peculiar. Director and co-writer Duncan Jones is no stranger to telling a different and difficult story; his first two films, Moon and Source Code, revel in that impulse, and in those two films Jones handled the story in the most beautiful of ways. Mute is not beautiful. It’s grimy, greasy and made out of a hybrid mix of chemicals that include the end of naivety and enduring happiness. In a sci-fi setting (which this originally didn’t have), all of that is certainly welcome! But the handling of the story is rough because the story itself can’t be handled or molded; think of the most elusive substance going all over your hands.
Mute has been on Jones’s brain for a long time, so much so that this is the movie he wanted to make before Moon. Passion projects for any filmmaker can be a blessing (Martin Scorsese with Gangs of New York) or a curse (Barry Levinson with Toys), and while I can’t completely conclude what Mute means for Jones, I can’t in my heart call this a curse. In fact, as of this writing I’m still not sure you or I or anyone can really discuss Mute without enough time passing first. It’s that unusual, in nearly every facet. The biggest reason for that is that the characters Jones creates are just as resilient as the story. With every villain, there’s understanding, and with every good guy, there’s poor life decisions. We have characters that perform lifelong favors for their enemies just to get a simple apology, for God’s sake. Even our hero, Leo, is a stubborn mess of a man. So, what do they all have in common? Desperation. You know what depression does to a human being, right? The story shifts along with their progressing feelings; right when you think this is going to focus on Leo, it shifts to Cactus and the lengths he’ll go to for this daughter. And when we get comfortable there, boom! We go back to Leo losing his mind or maybe even something else that’s a different kind of desperation, and it’s never with ease. It becomes obvious that it’s not just about the mission to find Naadirah, but it never feels like an ensemble piece. The story and flow of Mute feels like a puzzle that’s put together piece by random piece, with a little force needed to get it to fit.
Jones has given us a messy conundrum of a film, and I think he knows it. He may even bask in it, and I’ll say why. For the majority of this film, he showcases aspects that absolutely work without anything be told in a simple sense. The performances by the three leads are absolutely noteworthy. Seeing Skarsgård in full form is a sight to behold, showing amazing chops that he’s never given us before. You know Rudd was hungry to get into this role since it’s the most different kind of character he’s played in a long time; every time you think he’s going too far, he sharpens back up. Theroux is effective — I’m not inviting the creep over my place anytime ever. Props have to be given to composer Clint Mansell (who I haven’t heard in a while and he’s still killing it with themes and atmospheres) and the production designer/cinematography team of Gavin Bocquet and Gary Shaw. As I said, there’s a lot of great inside of Mute but they can’t latch on together to form that impressive collage. It’s that mixed bag that you wish wasn’t so.
But right at the beckoning hour (ironically enough, with an hour left), Jones literally throws his hands up and says “Wait…just, wait. It’s going to pay off. You’ll see.” OK, he didn’t literally do that to me in my living room, but through the art of filmmaking, he damn well did. And right off the bat, I’m not saying Mute turned it all around and became this brilliant thing that made sense all around and everything formed into a happy and fulfilling conclusion that can fit into a perfectly presentable package. Because it doesn’t, and I’m pretty positive that Jones didn’t want it that way. The final hour of the seemingly epic tale that is Mute does come together, in that we get to see how all the characters intertwine, and why we should care about certain actions. And that’s the most he gives us. It’s still not forward, and it has no interest of making everything pretty by the end. But that may well be by design.
Mute is already being called a disappointment by most, and that’s fine. I don’t think this is. I think this is a film from a tremendously talented filmmaker giving us everything he’s made of at this point in his life. Is it too ambitious for us now, or just too ambitious period? I’m still not sure as of this writing. But I’m going to make a prediction, right here and right now. Love or hate it, Mute is going to come up in conversations in years to come. It might be something we’ll want to see again tomorrow or in five years just to make sure we saw what we saw; an endearing troupe turned on its head in a sci-fi setting filled with characters that are in a constant struggle to kill their desperation. Go ahead, ponder it over for some time. I will, too.