To cut to the chase, “Mute”, Netflix’s latest original film, is very very bad. But unlike “Bright” or “The Ridiculous 6” or most of the other original productions that have come out of Netflix Studios in recent years, “Mute” is bad in a way that makes absolutely no sense.
In theory, at least, “Mute” does have a number of elements that seem like they might add up to something positive, or at least coherent. It has two talented actors, Alexander Skarsgård and Paul Rudd, cast as the protagonist and antagonist respectively. It is helmed by a director who has made good movies in the past — “Source Code” in 2011 and “Moon” in 2009. The film even has a solid technical foundation, with the best 2018 CGI that Netflix money can buy and a capable cinematographer in Gary Shaw. But none of this matters when nothing about the way the film is written or put together is coherent, as is the case with "Mute.”
While there is much about “Mute’s” plot that is incredibly convoluted and difficult to explain, there are a few basic points that the viewer knows for sure. The film is called “Mute” because its main character is just that, an Amish man whose family’s rejection of technology resulted in him not receiving the necessary surgery to heal a wound to his voice box. This man, Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), lives in a seedy, near-future version of Berlin that seems to be seems to be under control of the U.S. government but also, inexplicably, has a large number of communists in the population? Leo works as a bartender at a nightclub with his girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), who also works at the nightclub as a waitress.
When Naadirah disappears under mysterious circumstances, Leo sets out on a journey to discover her whereabouts. After a certain point, this search for Leo’s girlfriend devolves into a blood-soaked killing spree, with Leo dispatching upwards of 50 professional thugs and mercenaries by the movie’s end — why Leo seems to be so adept at hand-to-hand combat is also not explained in the slightest.
Parallel to the storyline featuring Leo, the film also follows a second character, Bill — whose nickname is Cactus, which goes completely unexplained — does not intersect with Leo until “Mute’s” third act. Cactus Bill seems to be some kind of deserter from the American military, although what exactly his role in the military was is left mostly ambiguous. Regardless, Cactus now works as a surgeon specializing in mechanical implants with his ex-lover, army buddy and fellow surgeon, Duck (Justin Theroux, who really should fire his agent).
Duck also happens to be a pedophile, a bizarre and nonsensical character detail that makes even less sense within the context of the film. The reason that Duck’s pedophilia is relevant to the film’s plot because Cactus has a young daughter and seems to have no qualms about allowing his daughter to be around a pedophile for some reason — why Cactus seems to be fine associating with a pedophile in the first place is a question that the film doesn’t even bother trying to address. As one can probably deduce from this — cursory — explanation of the film’s narrative, “Mute” is pretty freaking incomprehensible. This is not only true at a macro level with the film’s completely disjointed storytelling but also at a micro level with the way the characters interact with one another.
Paul Rudd’s Cactus is especially a mess of contradictions, alternating with dizzying speed between being a caring but inept father and acting like an unhinged Bowie-knife-wielding psychopath — perhaps not so coincidentally, Duncan Jones’s father happens to be David Bowie. The lack of interior logic for Cactus as a character is only further exacerbated by how completely miscast Paul Rudd is in the role. As one might expect, Paul Rudd is not really up to the task of being a threatening presence onscreen. Half the time, the scenes where Cactus is supposed to be intimidating instead end up coming across as being unintentionally humorous and even mildly pathetic.
Alexander Skarsgård is only slightly better in his role as Leo, although the ineffectiveness of his character is more a product of “Mute’s” horrendous script as opposed to him being miscast. As Skarsgård proved in first season of “Big Little Lies,” he is a more than capable actor when placed in a role that properly utilizes his talents. In “Mute,” Leo is little more than a mindless instrument of destruction, punching and clubbing his way through any kind of obstacle that the film places in his way. And forget about explaining Leo’s motivations for going on this aforementioned violent rampage — “Mute” seemingly has no interest whatsoever in the nuances of character development.
The one good thing that could probably be said about “Mute” as a film is that it looks fantastic, if not particularly original. Basically, the film resembles a much more extravagant, modern and non-practical effects-oriented version of the Los Angeles depicted in the original “Blade Runner,” only with none of the eerie internal logic that “Blade Runner’s” world had. As is the case for nearly every other aspect of “Mute,” an utterly mindless sense of style is the number one priority — at the expense of virtually everything else that might be found in a potentially good movie.
Strangely enough, though, given how terrible “Mute” is, it still might actually be an improvement over Netflix’s first original film of 2018, “Bright.” At least “Mute” has some feeling of individuality, even if said individuality is ultimately drowned in a sea of incompetent writing and directorial decisions.