Thankfully, Paul Rudd’s vocal cords work just fine.
It’s forty years from now, and Berlin is a hopping, progressive city filled with working stiffs, party goers, gangsters, and victims. Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) is mute, having lost his voice as a boy to an injury his Amish mother refused to have fixed surgically, and works as a bartender in a club alongside his waitress girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). He awakes one morning to find she’s gone missing, and the harder he searches for her the darker the secrets he uncovers — and the more danger he finds himself in.
That pretty much sums up the main story line running through Duncan Jones‘ fourth feature, Mute, but it’s oddly far from the most compelling one. That honor belongs to Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd), an American surgeon who’s currently AWOL from his military service and working for the mob in order to finance forged identification for himself and his young daughter Josie. He wants to leave Berlin behind and return to America without the law after him, and he’s engaging in some real dirty work to make it happen.
The two characters unsurprisingly cross paths, as do their story lines, but while they’re given equal screen time their weight by any other metric is uneven and tilted in Cactus’ favor. It’s through no fault of Skarsgård’s performance (although his lack of dialogue certainly doesn’t help), but Leo feels entirely one-note as the average guy looking for the woman he loves. We’re given too little time with Naadirah to forge a real connection and instead are left entirely with Leo’s unspoken but mandatory need to find her. Vocal affliction aside, we’ve seen Leo before.
Cactus, by contrast, is a fascinating and original creation.
Rudd has shown dramatic chops more than a few times previously, but here he’s allowed to balance his funnyman persona with something far darker and potentially threatening. From his epic, 70s-inspired mustache to his expressive/verbal dismissals of those around him, Cactus is a highly entertaining guy in a real and understandable jam. He loves his daughter, and his need to get out of Berlin is a clear motivation for the path he’s traveling. Rudd makes him likable through his humor and affection for Josie, and it’s his story line that captivates. Both Cactus and his narrative are irresistible, and the film loses energy every time it switches back over to its title character.
Supporting characters and players are a mixed bag of the charismatic and the banal. Duck (Justin Theroux) belongs in the former group as a doctor with his own secrets competing with the dirty business he shares with Cactus, and Theroux succeeds in walking a very fine line between playful and creepy. The various underworld figures, though, from bosses to henchman, are fairly bland.
The characters are the most notable source of imbalance in the script (co-written by Jones and Michael Robert Johnson), but other issues rear their heads. Cactus’ AWOL status is one shared by a high number of American servicemen apparently, and while it’s touched on enough to become a plot point it does so without detail or explanation. Leo’s Amish upbringing feels like a roundabout way to explain his condition, especially as it has no real bearing on the rest of his character. Some third act flashbacks are handled a bit clunky too, and they add to the list of pieces that feel adrift from the whole.
These are real issues, but even with the stumbles Mute manages to capture and hold your attention thanks in part to its visual style and tone. World-building is an often underrated aspect of science fiction films as too many of them focus on imagery that screams “sci-fi” while never truly meshing together as part of the world. The Holy Grail in this regard is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (and more recently, Denis Villeneuve’s belated follow-up, Blade Runner 2049) — the 80s classic immerses viewers into smartly-conceived environments that feel lived-in and tangible, foreign but familiar, and that in turn works to enhance the narrative. Numerous films have tried to ape the original’s style, but while Mute appears to lack Scott’s budget it succeeds better than most in dropping both characters and audiences into a believable and fully-functioning world.
From subtle production design choices to drones delivering fast food to robot strippers, it feels like a lived-in, near-future world not too far removed from our own. Flying cars aside, you can easily believe this environment and these characters exist. Jones moves viewers through it all with a sharp eye, intriguing characters, and another solid score from Clint Mansell, and while the energy wavers the pull toward the end remains strong. It can’t reach Moon‘s emotional weight or Source Code‘s smart story, but it’s a clear realignment for a director temporarily detoured out of his comfort zone by the CG-filled shenanigans of Warcraft.
Mute is ultimately an engaging story about human foibles and frailties set against a sci-fi backdrop, and while it may not be something to shout about it at least deserves an indoor-voice cheer.