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Non-Review Review: Mute

Mute is a bold and ambitious mess.

Mute is perhaps most interesting for what it is, and most frustrating in what it is about. In its own way, Mute stands as a triumph of the Netflix model. As it streams, Mute is undoubtedly the film that director Duncan Jones wanted to make. Indeed, it is next to impossible to imagine Mute making its way through the conventional studio system, and certainly not in the form that appeared on Netflix. Even watching the film play out, those never-materialised studio notes suggest themselves. (Most notably, “What is this film saying?”) There is nothing that feels like compromise about the film, and there is something very appealing in that.

However, there is also something deeply frustrating in Mute. The film is undoubtedly the unfiltered creative vision of its director, but there is something overwhelming in that. Mute is beautiful to look at, but almost too much to take in. Its world is vivid and fully formed, its atmosphere rich and evocative. However, there is something awkward in the story that unfolds within this dystopian landscape, the narrative never quite cohering in the same way as its grimy futuristic Cold War Berlin.

Mute is a film that is fascinating and impressive, if far from satisfying.

The most striking aspect of Mute is the world that it creates. The most obvious cinematic antecedent to the Berlin of Mute is the Los Angeles of Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, although there are countless examples from Minority Report to Ghost in the Shell. The template is familiar; a cold industrial city that seems actively hostile to the humans forced to navigate it, the strong sense of anomie only deepened by the bright neon decorations that offer a late-stage capitalist projection of life upon its drab grey walls.

However, there is something particularly effective about the version of Berlin that Duncan Jones has conjured into being. Part of this is undoubtedly down to the recognisable skeleton that occasionally peers out from beneath the brightly coloured veneer, the structures of modern-day Berlin that are fleetingly visible during various exterior sequences. Blade Runner accomplished something similar with its dystopian use of Los Angeles landmarks like the Bradbury Building. It grants the movie’s constructed world a sense of legitimacy and reality.

This texture is particularly notable in the sequences in which characters drive through Berlin, the roadways and public transport systems accessible to our protagonists largely unchanged from the modern day; after all, most of these structures have been largely unchanged for decades to this point. One particularly effective sequence has a character chasing a the sort of hovering cars typical of stories like this. As the flying car cruises through the sky, our protagonist must navigate the familiar streets of Berlin, through tunnels and under the elevated railway tracks.

Indeed, the Berlin setting is perhaps the most compelling aspect of Mute. It is not particularly accurate to describe this environment as a cyberpunk dystopia, even if there are flying cars and computer-generated skyscrapers. Indeed, Mute does not feel particularly futuristic. Instead, it feels almost like the vague memories of a lost future. There is something appealingly timeless to the world of Mute, even beyond the smartphones operated by its protagonists and the robotic dancers who work the local nightclubs.

Blade Runner is the obvious point of comparison for Mute; the flying cars, the noir atmosphere, the vague sense of impending doom, the constant rain, the familiar cityscape rendered in neon, the small flashes of Japanese culture amid these surroundings. However, it could reasonably be argued that Mute has as much in common with Atomic Blonde, another strange and nostalgic apocalyptic thriller set against the backdrop of Berlin. Mute‘s sense of apocalyptic dread seems as much rooted in its place as in its time.

Mute closes with a dedication to Duncan Jones’ father and the nanny whom he considered a “second mother.” His father casts a long shadow. David Jones (later Bowie) has a very strong spiritual connection to the city of Berlin, famously retreating to the city while attempted to quit cocaine in the late seventies. Bowie’s time in Berlin inspired his so-called Berlin trilogy, three hugely influential albums. Although only the central installment of the trilogy, “Heroes”, was recorded primarily in the city, the three albums were each inspired by the sense of dread and anxiety permeating seventies Berlin.

Indeed, the soundscape of Mute evokes Bowie’s work, particularly to the instrumental tracks on the second half of Low. The influence is never overt or explicit, but it can be very clearly traced. Early in the film, Jones employs Philip Glass’ symphonic adaptation of “Heroes”, creating a soundtrack that evokes Bowie’s history with the city while also operating at a remove. The Berlin featured in Mute is very similar in spirit (if not necessarily in detail) to that captured by Bowie on those three albums. In particular, Cactus is defined as a nomad and exile, reflecting Bowie’s own experience in the city.

Much like the frontier town presented in Atomic Blonde, the Berlin of Mute seems like a futuristic wild west. It is a town that seems to exist without laws or governance, populated by criminals and soldiers who have nowhere else to go. Despite being produced in 2017, Blade Runner 2049 suggested an eternal eighties. The sequel unfolded in a future projected from thirty years in the past, with advertisements for brands that had long since collapsed. The film also suggested a resurrected Cold War, with advertisements for “the Soviet Ballet.”

Mute unfolds against a similar Cold War backdrop. Berlin is once again under occupation. The streets are crowded with American soldiers, with the “Military Police” serving as the city’s make-shift law enforcement. The primary characters often find themselves navigating American and Russian interests in the city, the native population largely defined by their absence. In Mute, Berlin is once again a bohemian city of wayward souls. It is the frontier, a borderland that exists between order and chaos, a place where anything goes.

There is a constant sense of movement and shuffle in the Berlin of Mute, even as it seems that characters can never quite escape the city. Not only to allegiances shift, but people slip between the cracks. The primary plot of Mute focuses on a character attempting to find his girlfriend, who has disappeared into the city. This is no easy task, given that even the city’s most vibrant industries are difficult to pin down to a single location. “We migrate, try not to over stay our welcome,” boasts the proprietor of one of the city’s premiere black markets.

This wild west aesthetic is perhaps best embodied in the character of Cactus Jack, as portrayed by Paul Rudd and a comically gigantic moustache. The name “Cactus Jack” evokes the frontier, sounding like the nickname assigned to a particularly rugged outlaw on the fringe of civilisation. (His partner-in-some-crimes is known primarily as “Duck”, another name that seems lifted straight from old westerns. It is no coincidence that Cactus defines himself with a Bowie knife. This is more than another homage to the father who haunts the narrative, it suggests the frontier spirit of a man trying to carve a place in the world.

Of course, it should be stressed that Mute is not a period piece – at least not one unfolding against the backdrop of any particular period. After all, the idea of a renewed Cold War doesn’t seem particularly far-fetched, given the current geopolitical situation. Indeed, the American and Russian characters in Mute feel very much updated to reflect the modern day. The American soldiers are not the triumphant heroes who won the Second World War, but weary warriors exhausted by battles in “New Kandihar” and “Kabul.” The Russians are gangsters and thugs. Desertion is rife. Idealism is lost.

Still, there is something decidedly retro about the dystopian world of Mute. Like Atomic Blonde, it seems to capture the same apocalyptic dread associated with Cold War Berlin. There is some sense that the world is collapsing in on itself. When Cactus announces his plans to finally leave the purgatory that is Berlin, Duck warns him, “Cactus, don’t f%$k up your last night in Berlin.” The statement is uttered with no small amount of irony. It feels like every night could be somebody’s last night in Berlin.

Mute creates a compelling and effective sense of place. Indeed, the movie makes a point to emphasise the physicality of its environment. The film repeatedly incorporates titles and legends into its scenery, literally weaving these labels into its world. The film’s title is not projected or overlaid on screen, it is jotted down on a notepad. The film’s first big time jump is not denoted with a titlecard or printed on the bottom of the frame, but instead incorporated into a screensaver in the background of a scene. As such, Mute encourages the viewer to throw themselves into this world.

Even the plot of the movie reflects the construction of this world. Mute plays very much like a science-fiction take on those familiar noir stories of the forties and fifties, an aesthetic reflected in the film’s poster design. The primary plot of the movie concerns a character searching for his lost love. The eponymous mute, he is the very definition of the “strong and silent” type, a stoic observer of the chaos around him. The narrative is simple and familiar, with Leo wading deeper and deeper into the life of a woman that he thought he knew.

The secondary plot focuses on Cactus’ efforts to escape Berlin, to evade the authorities and to start a new life with his beloved daughter. With his best friend Duck, Cactus finds himself drawn into the service of some unsavory criminal elements. It spoils very little to reveal that these two arcs reflect one another over the course of the film, influencing one another in manners direct and indirect. Indeed, the narrative construction of Mute is fairly lean. The answer to its central mystery is quite transparent, even feeling like the only possible solution to the movie’s riddles.

This is not a major criticism of itself. Mute is very much constructed as an homage to old-fashioned noir thrillers. The best of these stories used their central mysteries in order to explore the nooks and crannies of a seedy underbelly before returning to a fairly straightforward and linear conclusion; the story was satisfying on its own terms, but also suggested a more complicated and compelling world than the characters (or the audience) had originally imagined. Mute manages this quite well, its central mystery twirling and bouncing around its constructed world, before settling on a straightforward conclusion.

However, Mute suffers very much in how it chooses to tell its story, and balancing the tone within its central narrative. The world of Mute feels very elaborate and well-considered, but its characters often seem half-formed and distorted. This is most obvious in the narrative thread focusing on Cactus and Duck, a story that hinges upon a series of revelations and observations about who these people are. In theory, these developments are compelling and engaging; they are unsettling, but in a manner that fits with the constructed world. In practice, these aspects of the film don’t really work.

There are several reasons for this, but the most obvious are structural. In most noir stories that hinge upon these sorts of revelations, the audience is invited to examine supporting characters through the prism of a central protagonist; this protagonist serves as the audience’s surrogate. Indeed, Leo works fairly well as an audience surrogate within his own narrative. In a more tightly focused film, Leo would provide the audience with some perspective on Cactus and Duck, only for the film to then subvert those expectations and revel new facets of their characters.

However, Mute instead chooses to allocate Cactus and Duck their own narrative thread, positioning the audience as objective observers their unfolding arc. This is a risky move, as Mute has to ratchet up the tension as it peels back the layers around these characters. There are moments in which this works, as both Cactus and Duck become increasingly unsettling to the audience watching at home. However, the film also pulls a number of narrative tricks in order to keep the audience at a remove from the two American ex-patriots.

The result is a shift that feels clever, but also slightly disingenuous. There are moments when Mute feels uncomfortable in just the right way, when it creates a sense of mounting dread concerning two characters who are essentially the protagonists of their own story. However, there are also moments when the film’s manipulations feel too transparent, whether in the information that it strategically conceals from the audience or in the emphasis that it chooses to place in certain scenes between the pair. Justin Theroux does the best he can with the material, but Paul Rudd feels miscast.

The movie’s central themes feel muddled and unfocused. There is a recurring thematic throughline about parents and responsibilities, about the trust in which children invest in adults. Mute is populated by terrible parents. Leo’s disability is down to a decision made by his mother prioritising her own beliefs above his best interests, literally silencing him. Cactus similarly struggles with parental responsibility, serious worried about his young daughter’s sugar intake and yet completely oblivious to the threat that his lifestyle poses to her.

However, these themes never quite cohere with the central narrative thrust of the movie. While Mute finds a way to tie all of these ideas together in terms of basic plotting, it never finds a way to make them dovetail in a deeper sense. Leo is searching for his lover, not for his lost mother or a surrogate daughter. Indeed, Mute only really ties Leo into this recurring theme of parental anxiety at the very beginning and the very end, creating a weird situation where the primary narrative drive is separated from the big ideas that seem to underpin the story.

Mute is a disjointed and uneven piece of work. The film creates a rich and compelling world, and atmosphere sustains the film for a lot of its run-time. However, the story being told within that world never finds the right balance. Some of this feels calculated and carefully calibrated, with Duncan Jones very pointedly playing with his audience’s expectations and deliberately tweaking them. However, sometimes these shifts feel clumsy and ill-considered, the film veering wildly from one tone to another without any firm grounding.

Mute is a heady cocktail that feels like the undiluted vision of its director. Unfortunately, it never quite gets the mix right. Mute struggles to clearly articulate what it is trying to say.

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