300 years ago, British textile workers terrified that the industrial revolution would cost them their jobs began to smash machines. Some were executed, but they’d correctly seen the future — and if they could have looked ahead to Duncan Jones’ Mute, the Luddites would have thrilled, or at least nodded with terse pleasure, to see a quiet Amish man (Alexander Skarsgård) in a near-sci-fi Germany continue to nobly shun technology. In a city of flying cars and drone shawarma delivery, Skarsgård’s Leo has never touched a cell phone. And he’s not unique. As Jones pans across overwhelmingly glittery and computerized sidewalks and swimming pools, we spot other resistant primitives in bonnets and suspenders embracing ye olden ways like a 2018 Brooklynite who’s taken up canning. Progress — especially capitalism marketed as progress — has a way of making people revolt.
Leo is an unassumingly radical character in a genre that tends to drool over shiny bleeps until they kill. But Leo isn’t a radical. He’s just a bartender, the right job for someone who carries himself like a parish priest. (Even today, half the people in the profession could be time travelers from a century ago worshipping giant blocks of ice.) And like a priest, Leo can’t tell anyone’s secrets. As a boy, his throat was slashed by a boat propeller and his religious mother refused to let newfangled doctors stitch his larynx. “God will heal him,” she insists in a flashback. Interpret his silence as you will. You might think his disability would make him more prone to text — boy, could he make use of an emoji — but instead this “techtard,” as bullies call him, insists on scribbling his thoughts on paper and letting emotions drip from his wet blue eyes.
At the club where Leo pours drinks, customers like Paul Rudd’s handlebar mustachioed Cactus Bill coolly watch robot strippers shake their metal missiles. “A real sexy hood ornament,” Bill drolls. He’s a single dad, backroom mob surgeon, and stranded American trying to make his way back across the Atlantic. There’s a war going somewhere, maybe a few wars — we catch a glimpse of a headline about New Kandahar, presumably in Afghanistan — but every character in Jones and Michael Robert Johnson’s script is too focused on fighting for scraps to fill us in on the planet.
Bill is petulant and ridiculous. When a barista refuses to walk to his table to take his order, Bill angrily gets up wheezing and moves to the counter, panting in fake exhaustion like he’s just raced up Mount Everest and now desperately needs a cappuccino. He does twice the talking of a normal character to make up for Leo’s silence, although they rarely share a scene. Instead, the two are connected by the disappearance of blue-haired waitress Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), causing the plot to function like a game of double dutch with the audience jumping between both men’s plot threads as they smack against these neo-noir streets.
Naadirah is Leo’s girlfriend, although there’s no buying their true love, the kind of movie fantasy that turns shy men in to ass-kicking brutes. He doesn’t know anything about her except her favorite food, and when that’s pointed out to him, repeatedly, doesn’t seem to care. Still, you believe Naadirah when she coos, “You are so beautiful.” He is, in the manner of a small kid surprised to be the size of a full-grown man. Shuffling around in his ankle-cropped pants, fists dug deep in his pockets like Dennis the Menace, Skarsgård reveals an innocence I’ve never seen in him before. He’s usually cast as the husband you can’t trust, either because he’s lying to his wife or himself, but here, he seems to trust everything — a mistake in a town of fiends. Or as Naadirah’s best friend Luba (Robert Sheehan), a fantastically costumed prostitute in a world where most women seem to hook on the side, mock-compliments: “Mute and dumb, what a catch!”
Here’s where I should be clear that Mute isn’t a good movie. It manages to be both bizarre and boring. While I admire Jones’ inventive details like a bowling ball that looks like a giant die, or a severed cow cartoon shilling for steak, or the way cell phones have advanced to where people don’t acknowledge they’ve answered a ring before screaming hello into a startled room, the film simply looks cheap. There’s a sickly teal cast to the color tint that settles into Skarsgård’s eye sockets, making him look like a boy who couldn’t sleep for a month before Christmas. Meanwhile in this story about innocence disruptus, Bill’s best friend Duke (Justin Theroux, unrecognizable as ever) literally lusts after children. He’s a comic relief pedophile. Better people than me will recoil from him on sight, but my favorite subplot was watching Bill, who spends half the film trying to find a babysitter for his daughter (played by twins Mia-Sophie and Lea-Marie Bastin), slowly accept that he should pal around with a better class of creep, if only out of an “as a father of daughters” self-interest. Bill’s moral code is as follows: Sugary sodas, bad. Burning someone with a cigar, totally badass.
Mute is more interesting as a bullet-point list of absurdities than as a two-hour film. Yet, Jones continues to have my attention. He’s one of the only directors making choices that haven’t focus-tested the fantasy out of genre filmmaking. (Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is another.) He takes risks, like humanizing the orcs in his daffily magical Warcraft. Sometimes, he’ll randomly shoot a close-up of a dachshund, like he does here. And he makes mistakes — big, jaw-dropping blunders that provide dangerous thrills that safer, better films don’t. Mistakes don’t give a movie soul. But you can feel human fingerprints on his films. Call me a Luddite, but given a choice between Hollywood’s well-oiled blockbuster machine and bizarre bloopers like Mute, I’ll take the whittling Amish action hero. Join my revolt?