Director: Duncan Jones
Stars: Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux
Imagine you’re browsing through one of the few bookstores left in town, or maybe through your favorite digital ‘bookstore.’ One book title stands out above the others: “TALES INSPIRED BY THE WORLD OF BLADE RUNNER.” Now, not being strictly a horror geek by any means, you may find it tempting to check out. And what kind of stories would be found in that book? In fact, what might the first story look like? I believe that co-writer/director DUNCAN JONES has answered that question, with the “Netflix Original” movie, MUTE, his fourth feature following up the critically-acclaimed MOON.
Sam Rockwell just won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the dark comedy drama THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, and rightfully so. In fact, many were of the opinion that he should have at least been nominated for his stunning performance in Jones’s first film, so maybe this was a way for the Academy to play “catch-up”. If there’s any validity at all to that correlation, you can be damn sure that ALEXANDER SKARSGARD will have to write his podium speech very soon.
In MUTE, he plays the main character the title refers to: Leo, a speechless Amish bartender, working in the neon-and-pixel-laden squalor of futuristic Berlin (itself portrayed by the awesome sets within Studio Babelsberg, home to such amazing films as THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.) Leo is fiercely, deeply in love with his co-worker, bar waitress Naadirah (SEYNEB SALEH). “Nadi” as her friends call her, knows what people think of their relationship, but contrary to their opinion, Leo was the catch for HER, not the other way around. It’s more than obvious why, as the shy but passionate “mute” loves her unconditionally, much to her joy and her guilt. Nadi is one of those girls walking around with a shitload of secrets; the kind that can turn some poor sap’s life upside down…as Leo is about to discover.
Skarsgard, used to playing a rogue’s gallery of rakishly handsome assholes, reveals much about his range here by doing a 180, portraying a man who desperately wants to hold onto any and all of the good things left in this miserable existence, having lost one of the most important things to him in his life, thanks to a terrible boating accident during his childhood. Where his physicality has served him well in the roles of vampire and sexual predator (sometimes both in the same scene), here he uses it effectively to express Leo’s emotions as a man who has no choice, since he has no voice that enables him to do otherwise. It’s not a turn from him that you’ll soon forget.
And speaking of breaking out of stereotypes, two figures are introduced into the story that are key to the fates of both Leo and Nadi. Cactus (PAUL RUDD) and Duck (JUSTIN THEROUX) are former war buddies, now plying their trades in the seamy underbelly of the city. While Duck puts his field surgery skills to use, patching up the slugs and thugs of various crime bosses and like-minded associates, Cactus helps him in the O.R. and by pimping out his buddy’s specialty, all the while working to try to find an escape route for himself and his daughter, Josie (MIA-SOPHIE and LEA-MARIE BASTIN), out of the sleazy city and the life that comes with. Easier said than done for Cactus, though, as the threads that connect everyone in the story begin to tighten around them, like a spider’s web. A web that some will manage to escape…and some will die trying to.
Rudd’s performance as Cactus is going to take a lot of his fans by surprise, to say the least. A staple of Judd Apatow comedies and comedic roles in general, it wasn’t much of a stretch for him to play ANT-MAN, since it was basically Rudd in superhero mode, costume included. Cactus, however, is a whole different animal altogether. A loving dad with a completely shitty sense of how to parent, thanks to his thuggish lifestyle, he tries to walk the tightrope between being a psychotic wildman and a responsible adult…most which never works out well at all. It’s a thrilling new turn we’re seeing from him, and I hope he does more of this.
While on the other side of the spectrum, Theroux as his bunk buddy Duck, seems to fall right in line with the chameleonic tendencies of this amazing actor. He’s been no stranger to quirky, conflicted, flawed-as-fuck characters, with the last one having been the Emmy-caliber role of Mapleton Police Chief Kevin Garvey, in the devastating HBO series THE LEFTOVERS. Also as much a comedic actor in some roles as Rudd, Theroux still stretched himself in roles like the aforementioned, as well as working with directors like David Lynch on his typically trippy classic, MULHOLLAND DRIVE.
But having said that, Duck is a departure even for HIM. A likeable guy, equally as crazy as Cactus, Duck has one sickening proclivity that even his platonic soulmate has a hard time stomaching. Which is not surprising. Cactus does have a young daughter, after all…
Two other actors who deserve to be noted as equally as the principals here, are Irish actor ROBERT SHEEHAN (THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES and GEOSTORM), who plays the flamboyant “Luba”, Nadi’s co-worker at the bar and best friend. Luba is another one of the city’s chameleons…more than a gay escort or transvestite, Luba is anything you need him to be, or needs to be in order to survive; a trait that not only serves him well (not to mention his clients), but plays a very important part in the story’s most striking and harrowing turn of events.
And in a similar turn, DOMINIC MONAGHAN – yes, THAT Dominic, everyone’s favorite Hobbit from Peter Jackson’s spectacular franchise – makes a surprising cameo, playing a guy named “Oswald.” I will say no more about his part in things, except that THIS character gets him about as far from Middle Earth as you could possibly imagine. In fact, you may not even recognize him or realize it was him until the closing credits. (I most certainly didn’t.)
The script, co-written by Jones with MICHAEL ROBERT JOHNSON, borrows less from BLADE RUNNER’S neo-futuristic trappings than it does the noirish aspect, and the sharp focus on the characters. The main protagonist and the antagonists around him are definitely memorable, quirky and not at all conventional, but not in that way where the audience can see the writers trying way too hard just to be ‘different.’ The actors help immensely with this, especially the chemistry between Skarsgard and Saleh, which is key to making it all work. If Leo and Nadi had nothing going, neither would the story.
Kudos as well to the chief members of the creative team: DP GARY SHAW, production designer GAVIN BOCQUET and composer CLINT MANSELL. I don’t know if the awareness of avoiding a straight-up RUNNER comparison was there, especially after the release of BLADE RUNNER 2049. But their work all blends to give off the ‘flavor’ of the movie that indirectly inspires MUTE, without ‘copying the recipe’, to the point that it would make the film itself seem something like a cinematic version of a ‘replicant’.
Thanks to Jones’s confident direction, and performances I could easily watch more than once, MUTE gets a whopping four out of five stars.