I have been describing Duncan Jones' Mute as "Blade Runner's kinky cousin." The comparison to Sir Ridley Scott's slick wet future dream might be top of mind because Denis Villenueve so expertly revived the world with his own Blade Runner 2049. But there's no way not to view Mute and not feel as if the neon-drenched landscapes of Jones' futuristic playground doesn't take inspiration from Scott's visionary creation. But then we reach a significant plot turn, and we realize that Jones aims to tell a different type of story here. And that's when Mute gets downright sleazy.
Thanks to a tragic accident that occurred during his childhood, Leo (Alexander Skarsgard) is unable to speak. Now grown, he spends his evenings tending bar at a dangerous Berlin nightclub, the kind of seedy joint where entitled gangsters openly hit on cocktail servers like the blue-haired, pale-skinned Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). Leo hates this. You see, he and Naadirah date, and outside of the bar, she shows him a human and emotional side that she keeps from the watering-hole patrons. For her own survival.
Leo's self-imposed distance from the criminal underlings at his workplace gets challenged, however, when Naadirah disappears. She warns Leo that she's no good, and that the strong-but-silent barkeep would be better off without her. But he doesn't listen. So, he begins to investigate her mysterious absence, and the clues point him to a mess of underworld shenanigans.
This is where we catch up with the colorful reason why Mute is worth a stream. The "B" plot in Duncan Jones' sci-fi thriller runs concurrent to Leo's quest (they intersect eventually, very late in the movie), and follows the exploits of two drifters, Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux). The duo mainly earn money performing surgeries for mob bosses. Your underling took on some shrapnel in a gun fight? Bring them to Bill and Duck's hideaway operating table. These two have a rich history, which is hinted at through dialogue as the movie zings along. But Cactus Bill isn't focus on his past. He's concerned for his future. He has a daughter. He needs papers, so he can get out of Berlin. He wants to be back in the States. And he'll sacrifice Duck -- and Leo -- if it means getting him out of Germany and back home.
Duncan Jones has gone on the record to say that Mute took him 16 years to get made, and now that we're able to see it, it's easy to understand why. This is a dirty, kinky film that would have to be compromised if it were to be released in theaters. Basically, Mute needed Netflix, and Netflix -- in an effort to establish itself as a destination for original programming -- needed Mute. Content police don't seem to monitor Netflix with the same regulations as the MPAA, meaning that Mute doesn't have to pull punches when it explores the dark crevices of Cactus Bill and Duck's practices. You might think you know where Mute is going with them, but you'll be glad to be wrong.
That storyline works because Paul Rudd plays so deliciously against type as Cactus Bill. Rudd's a natural charmer, a likable guy who audiences want to befriend, in virtually every circumstance. But rarely has Rudd been required to use that accessibility to lure people in to a truly menacing persona like Cactus, and it says a lot about his performance that even when we know the truth about this man, I still found myself compelled to side with him. Maybe it's just that glorious mustache. I'm under its spell.
I'm also under the spell of the neo-noir, cyberpunk Berlin that Duncan Jones creates with production designer Gavin Bocquet and composer Clint Mansell. As mentioned, it feels like an offshoot of Blade Runner, as if, if at any moment, you tore your eyes away from Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard and peeked down a different alley, you'd spy Cactus Bill or Leo and choose to follow them for a few hours. Jones even connects Mute to his earlier sci-fi drama, Moon, in a clever sequence, laying an even broader foundation.
What Mute lacks in originality, it makes up for in risky storytelling and unpredictably grimy plot decisions. The storylines connect in a satisfying manner, and the production values create a futuristic sandbox that doesn't feel cheapened by a reduced budget. It all reminds me that I'd like to come back to Mute's world and follow more storylines, because you know this fertile ground can unearth up many more engaging narratives.
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