According to the director Duncan Jones, Mute, his new film debuting Friday on Netflix, was not originally intended as a work of sci-fi. And it shows. This noir-tinged mystery drama about a mute bartender trying to solve the disappearance of his girlfriend by plunging into a criminal underworld is, indeed, set in the future. There are some robots, a lot of Blade Runner–esque neon lights littered around the city, and a very vague sense of dystopia in the air. The world has certainly gotten worse, in some undefined way. But it’s hard to understand the purpose of Mute’s setting, beyond serving as a cool backdrop and as a way to harken back to the works Jones made earlier in his career, smart and engaging movies like 2009’s Moon and 2011’s Source Code.
Unfortunately, Mute isn’t on the level of those films, which helped establish Jones as an exciting new director to watch. I’d argue that the Netflix movie isn’t even as interesting as his 2016 blockbuster Warcraft, a CGI-laden mess of a video-game adaptation that was admirably ambitious (if, ultimately, a creative failure). No, Mute commits the far worse sin of simply being dull, and running through its amateur gumshoe plot with a curious lack of zeal. All the futuristic dressing in the world can’t save the film—which Jones has described as a passion project—from feeling like a warmed-over Law & Order episode.
Our hero is Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a man who at a young age suffered a motor-boating accident that severed his vocal cords; the audience sees, in flashback, that his Amish family refused surgery that could have healed him. I provide this information with the same blank matter-of-factness as the movie; if there’s a reason for Leo’s Amish background, other than that it helps explain his disability, it’s unclear.
This is a recurring feature in Mute: character details, and sometimes uncomfortable pieces of embellishment, that only seem to exist for one specific plot point. Leo cannot speak, so instead he just looks tenderly at his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), a silent puppy dog who writes her little mash notes and whittles her wooden sculptures. Leo is a luddite of sorts, not participating in the high-tech world around him—which is perhaps a result of his Amish upbringing, but this detail also feels like a way for Jones to keep from really engaging with the futuristic Berlin that Leo lives in.
Not long into the film, Naadirah mysteriously disappears. But rather than spring into action, Mute lurches slowly into more vague character studies. Leo does start to prod around the seedy underbelly of Neo-Berlin in an attempt to figure out what happened to Naadirah. But he’s a featureless cipher of a character, a sort of white knight whose attachment to Naadirah feels thinly sketched at best. The path he has to walk down to find her leads to some sketchy gangster types but quickly dead-ends. For most of the movie, Leo is listless.
To fill in the gaps, Mute frequently hands off to two seemingly unrelated characters, the ex-military surgeons Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd, sporting a pornographic handlebar mustache) and Duck (Justin Theroux), whose connection to Naadirah is unclear but obviously crucial. Rudd and Theroux are automatically livelier performers, plus, they actually get dialogue to say. But their plotline also mostly shrugs at the film’s sci-fi trappings (there’s some business with very industrial-looking sex robots, but that’s it), and their ties to the Naadirah mystery take an infuriatingly long time to be teased out.
Instead, we just get a lot of Rudd and Theroux bantering, which is enjoyable in and of itself. But their characters are horribly seedy (Cactus Bill is the neglectful father of a young girl, and Duck, it’s implied, is a pederast), which again seems to serve little purpose beyond giving the film a really grimy feel. Rudd and Theroux do their best to have fun, but the movie’s miserable tone is actively competing against them at every turn. By the final hour (when the duo’s overall importance becomes clearer), all the levity’s been sucked out of their double act.
Jones has said he’s been trying to make this story for his entire career, and I’m glad he finally got to. But Mute is not the back-to-basics success I had expected for him after Warcraft’s noted failure. The director has gone smaller and returned to the genre that’s been most fruitful for him (indeed, there’s a reference to Moon, uselessly indicating that the two movies share a universe), but the film lacks the passion and humor of his earlier work. Mute is a slog, and a depressing one; as Netflix sci-fi goes, it’s not as abjectly inept as The Cloverfield Paradox, but it’s perhaps even more disappointing given the talented filmmaker involved.