As I wrote recently in a post about the horror film Winchester, I’m a fan of historical films that simply use the period as a backdrop to the story as opposed to using the story as a means of investigating the period. I find it encouraging to think that elements of human nature have remained the same over time—that there’s something I can feel that connects me with the people of the past. Too many movies set in the past treat their subjects as morally inferior to the people of the present, making it all too easy to judge them. (This would summarize my reservations with Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water.) How humbling, then, to encounter characters in a past era who are just as complex as we are (or, in the case of a recent example like André Téchiné’s Golden Years, even more mysterious), experiencing the same problems and satisfactions.
One thing I like about Duncan Jones’s sci-fi mystery Mute (which is now streaming on Netflix) is that it approaches the future in the way a movie like Winchester approaches the past. That is, it suggests that people will be more or less the same a few generations from now and treats the period setting incidentally. The film’s future Berlin still provides an eyeful, even if some of the design elements feel lifted from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The filmmakers have fun imaging what it might be like to go to the doctor or order fast food in the future, and such details keep the movie interesting. Yet at its core, Mute tells the sort of story that might have been made as a B film noir in the late 1940s, following a solitary bartender as he searches for his missing girlfriend, who had ties to the criminal underground. Apparently organized crime and lost love are timeless.
The film begins when Leo, the bartender, is a child. On a family vacation, he’s the victim of a boating accident that tears through his larynx and leaves him unable to speak. Flash-forward to Leo as an adult (and played by Alexander Skarsgård). We are now in the near future, but Leo still lives like it’s the late 20th century; he doesn’t own a smartphone, he prefers to share his thoughts with pen and paper rather than digital text, and his apartment contains only vintage technology. This affectation (along with Leo’s muteness) makes him an identification figure for viewers who feel overwhelmed by the film’s technology-saturated environments, but it also separates him from the other characters, making him an outsider hero in the film noir tradition.
Jones shows Leo working at a popular nightclub, going on a date with a coworker named Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), but otherwise keeping a solitary life. He intercuts Leo’s story with scenes about a couple of rogue doctors named Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux). Outsiders themselves, the doctors earn money by working for an organized crime syndicate—in an early scene, Jones shows them removing bullets from a criminal who had been wounded in a gunfight—and spend their pay partying all over the city. The first act of Mute is relatively free of narrative development; Jones and cowriter Michael Robert Johnson are more interested in exploring the characters’ lives and the social fringes in which they live. These are lonely souls who are drawn to the underground because it suits their secretive personalities.
Mute kicks into gear when Naadirah goes missing and Leo determines to find her. Discovering that she had worked as prostitute, Leo investigates Berlin’s criminal underworld to learn where she may have gone. He crosses paths on several occasions with Cactus Bill and Duck, but neither doctor wants to help him in his pursuit, despite having some connection to Naadirah. Anyway Cactus Bill is too preoccupied with securing forged passports so he and his daughter can return to the States. (Like many a port town in old noir films, Jones’s Berlin is filled with people who are trying to leave; the characters’ transitory nature adds to the portrait of the city as a whole, making it seem particularly alienating.) Bill’s mission parallels Leo’s: the alcoholic surgeon as desperate to get out of Berlin as the bartender is to rescue his girlfriend.
Mute contains some unwelcome passages of cruelty and homophobia, and a subplot revealing Duck to be a pedophile only adds to the unpleasantness. Yet the movie’s crucial flaw is its failure to make Leo’s doggedness seem plausible. The early scenes between him and Naadirah are nice, but by no means do they suggest the sort of great romance that would inspire Leo to risk his life to recover it. The scenes involving Cactus Bill are more successful; Rudd clearly enjoys playing the lout, and there’s a world-weariness to his performance that reflects the sordid environment. In hindsight, I wish that Jones had made the movie exclusively about him.