“Style” is misused a fair deal in modern film criticism, in both the positive and derogatory senses of the phrase and concept. At times, style is used to cover for all manner of sins with regard to narrative flaw or suspect ethics; surely you’ve heard “yeah, but it looks terrific” as a rejoinder in arguments about a ‘bad movie’ by the other party in the conversation. Style is the excuse made for incoherent movies built to entertain the eye and not the mind, a limiting definition when it can offer so much more. To use just one recent example, last year’s Blade Runner 2049 built a haunting long-form tone piece out of style, aesthetic, and sound, and the atmosphere therein conjured by the intersections of all those forces. Style can be (and often is) used as a copout justification for vapid filmmaking, but in the right hands, it can also be exhilarating.
It’s then disappointing that Mute, the latest feature from Duncan Jones, is a glaring example of the former category. It’ll earn no shortage of comparisons to 2049 and its iconic predecessor, but it’s unlikely that too many of them will be complimentary. While the film’s release suggests that its production began long before last October, it arrives looking so derivative of Denis Villeneuve’s film that Jones must have been quietly shaking his head in theaters upon that film’s release. Mute has the unique burden of being just well-made enough (at least from a money-on-the-screen vantage, anyway) that its shortcomings become all the more glaring before long. It’s awash in retro-futurist style and floods of grim urban neon, but it ultimately accomplishes far too little for the dramatic weight with which it attempts to carry itself in nearly every scene. It’s a film about a glowering futuristic hellscape of technology and unchecked hedonism, and it’s not even the best one of those released in the past six months. How’s that for bad luck?
To the topic at hand, however, Mute concerns Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a bartender at a distinctly Phillip K. Dick-esque nightclub. Leo lost his ability to speak in a childhood accident involving a boat propeller; it’s intimated that his voice could’ve been saved by the miracles of modern surgery, but his devout Amish family refused, declaring that God will heal him. This family-induced anguish is the first in a seemingly endless parade of plot points that Mute will introduce and subsequently abandon; before the film is over, those will also include pedophilia, implied war crimes, turncoat sex workers, and a handful of gangsters who seem to exist within the film’s universe just to offer menacing wallpaper as Leo wanders through its hyper-futuristic Berlin.
Leo wanders in search of Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), a waitress at the club and Leo’s lover, who follows the trajectory of so many missing women in so many stylish urban noir tales like this one. She shows affection to a brutish protagonist who ambles misunderstood through his world, she suddenly begins to exhibit suspicious behavior, and with the snap of a finger, she disappears into Berlin. Leo gives chase, while beset on all sides with the dramas of others, from a Russian kingpin (Gilbert Owuor) to Duck (Justin Theroux), a doctor who passes his days performing reconstructive surgeries with robotics and his nights paying for the most Lolitaesque prostitutes he can find. Meanwhile, Duck carries ties to Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd), an ex-pat American surgeon with designs on taking himself and his daughter home after a fallout with the U.S. government.
The political underpinnings of the film’s universe are of little consequence in Jones and co-writer Michael Robert Johnson’s screenplay, which tends to relegate its most engaging elements to window dressing for what’s otherwise a fairly boilerplate noir odyssey. The tech-centric world is too familiar to ring as particularly unique, even as its vocal-centric setups create a particularly ironic sort of nightmare for Leo. The film’s notions of perversion as an inevitable result of a technological paradise have been explored to more poignant effect elsewhere, and Mute makes the suspect and ultimately ugly choice to relegate them to shock value. (A scene where a half-clad young girl is viewed at length from Duck’s point of view is particularly grotesque.) From the global politics to the inter-crime syndicate drama, Mute rips through its setpieces at a clip without ever deriving a particular wealth of meaning from them. They’re just good-looking sets through which Skarsgård can emote and perform violence.
For his part, Skarsgård delivers the most soulful performance he can muster in a film that does little with any of its drama. His eyes deliver an evocative weight that almost feels jarring against the endless stylization around him, and it adds a weight to scenes that would carry little otherwise. And while he and Rudd are both hamstrung by a film that never lingers in any one place long enough for any one moment to register, Rudd in particular finds depths in a character which often reads like an assemblage of quirks, rather than a person. Cactus may be a foulmouthed prick who trawls through the city with a golden hunting knife on his belt, but he’s also a sincerely affectionate father, and loyal to a fault to the completely undeserving Duck. These moments of humanity serve Mute best, as do Skarsgård and Saleh’s interactions. The common thread there, however, is that they’re all too brief.
Far more often, Mute plays like the first draft of what could have been an intriguing dystopic noir, and it never fully comes into its own. While Jones is far from the first director to attempt to modernize noir standards, he never seems to find a point to any of it; it’s an unremarkable story saturated in Refn colors. There’s little redemption where the film seeks it out, especially as it relates to a cast of characters who (aside from Leo) have far much screen time spent on their sins for the hollow attempts at characterization to land authentically with the audience. Mute has gobs of style to burn, but it’s virtually the textbook definition of sound and fury signifying nothing. Even when it works, it’s not entirely that interesting, and when it doesn’t (which is far more often), Mute becomes an active slog to get through. It’s the kind of movie that even the staunchest style fetishists will struggle to lionize before long.