Since the advent of streaming movies, I think we’ve all been in this situation: you’re watching a movie that isn’t really capturing your attention, and for whatever reason you press pause. This brings up the timeline, showing you your progress into the movie. And your jaw drops.
How can I only be 47 minutes into this 2-hour movie? It’s been going on forever, you might think.
That’s what I felt when watching Mute. And guys, I just had to bail. I saw that 1 hour and 19 minutes remaining time code and I lost all will and motivation to continue watching it. This piece isn’t going to review the totality of this movie or whether you should watch it, because that wouldn’t be fair to it, but I am going to talk specifically about the reasons that this movie never clicked with me.
Mute is the new movie directed and at least partially written by Duncan Jones, who made the Internet-favorite Moon and the not so revered Warcraft. It takes place in a future version of Berlin, where Leo, a mute Amish man played by Alexander Skarsgård (I’ve just finished Big Little Lies, so forgive me for not having an ounce of sympathy for his character), sets out on a course to find his missing girlfriend. This is a passion project for Duncan Jones, who has wanted to make this movie since it was written in 2002. Netflix was the first company to open their wallets for it, and in their usual fashion never really gave any creative input or oversight. Passion projects are interesting things for filmmakers, and more often than not what I’ve found is that there are very particular reasons that these projects don’t see the light of day. There’s a clichéd saying in editing and writing: kill your darlings. A lot of times, these passion projects are darlings that filmmakers don’t have the heart to kill, and this movie seems to be one of them. The love and care put into costumes and city design is obvious (though it sometimes brushes too close to Blade Runner to feel completely original), and the character ideas and conflicts are interesting as well, but it seems like a story that doesn’t really work yet so desperately wants to.
For starters – and what got me saying “oh dear” to myself – is that our protagonist’s girlfriend is a literal Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The early 2000’s were rife with this type of character; the fun-loving, oftentimes crazy girl that gets the main character out of their shell. Usually they have different color hair, noting their “individuality,” and their favorite type of music is “soulful whiny guy with an acoustic guitar”. It was honestly crazy to me when Naadirah appears in Mute, with her deep blue hair and energetic, crazy personality. She is literally a carbon copy of all those tropes, and it’s fascinating to me that nobody in the creative process had the self-awareness to make changes as to not fall into that trap. Don’t get me wrong, this script was written in the early 2000’s when that trope was at the height of being mined, but could it have hurt to change up the character a little bit? At this point it just seems like an artifact from a different era. So much of her character in the opening is “OMG I’m so crazy I have so many secretsssssssssss,” and it’s just detrimental to the story as a whole.
After getting that out of the way, let’s talk about that story. The movie’s posters and Duncan Jones’ interviews have suggested that they wanted it to be in the same style of a ‘40’s noir-type story or Casablanca. This makes sense for the basic structure, but the beginning isn’t executed all that well. The movie’s trying to take us into too many places at once at the beginning. There’s a reason that most pulp mystery novels in the 1940’s had that first person perspective, and that’s because the protagonist is basically our eyes and ears in this place. Raymond Chandler’s LA is as strange and murky as the one that appears in Blade Runner, just in different ways, which is why we follow Marlowe and only him in those stories. In movies, Chinatown starts small with Jake Gittes taking a job, and only about 20 minutes into the movie do we start expanding the scope of the case that he’s uncovering. In Mute we get a flashback to Leo’s incident, then we get interactions with Naadirah, then Paul Rudd shows up and we’re on a different train of thought, then we follow only Naadirah for a scene, and it becomes messy. What we have is an info dump that isn’t efficient, nor does it endear our characters to us. Noir is all about exposition dumps, but the good ones are done in ways that make it feel unique and give our characters life. To use Casablanca as an example, we get a voiceover monologue to set the stage, then a sweeping entrance into Rick’s, where we’re treated to a bunch of vivid side characters talking about our protagonist, and then get a reveal. We’re setting the stage in a way that gives us a sense of place and familiarity in probably half the time that Mute takes. If Casablanca had handled itself similarly to Mute, we would have been treated to fragments of flashbacks with Rick and Ilsa, then some stuff with Louie, then Rick in his bar, and it would feel jumbled.
What makes film noir mysteries so interesting is that the focus is super tight and we only know as much as our protagonist knows. We can’t predict how they’ll act, or what logical leaps they take, but we have all the information at our disposal. Mute, because it goes in so many different directions at once, gives us too much information and doesn’t spend enough time solidifying who these people we’re supposed to be following are. We’re constantly shifting focus, instead of closing it to firmly live in one character’s head. The scenes with Paul Rudd probably pay off in some way, but they seem to bog down a story that’s supposedly about the namesake of the film tracking down a loved one. Without people to root for, it’s just flat and bland, regardless of interesting character ideas.
The disclaimer here is that I bailed, and shame on me because it might have redeemed itself in a big way towards the end. But, like we saw with Bright, just because something has an interesting world doesn’t mean you get a pass for a lack of energy or character. Your opening scenes can be slow, but they shouldn’t feel like work. And for Mute, they were work.
This article was written by Samuel Becker: writer for hire, Tek5 Filmscore Critic, and general hypocrite.