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The Streaming Pile: ‘Mute’ Is Ambitious in All the Wrong Ways

In a quest to find the worst Netflix originals that the streamer has to offer, our correspondent watched the spiritual sequel to director Duncan Jones’s 2009 triumph, ‘Moon.’ Unfortunately, the Alexander Skarsgaard vehicle could not be more different from its predecessor.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

With billions across the globe (hopefully) doing their part to stay at home to flatten the curve, people suddenly have a lot of time on their hands—and no new sporting events or movies to entertain them. There has never been a better chance to check out that book you’ve always been meaning to read, or finally chip away at your bloated Netflix queue. But while Netflix has a lot of quality content at its disposal, the streamer doesn’t exactly have a flawless critical record—you don’t spend billions on original programming without releasing a crapload of duds. And so, to help distract you during these stressful and unprecedented times, I will be navigating the bowels of Netflix’s original movie library to find the worst of the worst. This recurring column will continue until it is safe to go outdoors or my resolve breaks; whichever comes first. Our journey continues with Duncan Jones’s Mute.

Among the many things available to stream that The Ringer and countless other sites have recommended while we all practice social distancing, one grimly amusing subcategory is movies that remind us of the feeling of being quarantined. One underrated and underseen “quarantine” movie worth your time is Moon, currently streaming on Netflix. The first feature from British director Duncan Jones, Moon follows Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell), the lone worker on a mining station located—you guessed it—on the moon who’s about to finish his three-year stint and return home, but begins to go a bit stir crazy. I won’t spoil exactly what’s going on with Sam’s psychological crisis, but this movie is fantastic—the only thing about it that hasn’t aged well since its debut in 2009 is the voice work from Kevin Spacey as Sam’s robot companion. (Not exactly Jones’s fault.)

I’m an unapologetic sci-fi dork, so I inhaled Moon the instant it came out, and aside from learning that Jones is the son of the late David Bowie (yes, really!), I was enticed by the director’s claim that Moon would be the first part of a semiconnected trilogy. Mute, the spiritual sequel to Moon, was a long-gestating and personal passion project for Jones—trapped in a development hell that can haunt some filmmakers for much of their careers. And with Netflix’s financial backing, Jones finally got to make Mute happen in 2018. But sadly—especially if you aren’t aware of how much enthusiasm went into the project—Mute is bizarrely, ambitiously bad cinema.

Its story follows Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a mute bartender who was raised Amish and injured his neck in a childhood boating accident. (Because of his upbringing, he was never allowed to have surgery that could’ve restored his voice.) Leo lives in a futuristic, Blade Runner–esque version of Berlin, and is dating a waitress, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), who appears to be keeping some sort of secret from him. I would be remiss not to mention that the nightclub where the two characters work is the type of place that features robot strippers, a sight that leads one patron to say, “Real sexy hood ornament you got dancing up there tonight.” I’m obligated to provide GIF evidence:

The man who utters that immortal line is Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd), and yes, please take a moment to process that Paul Rudd plays a guy named Cactus Bill. (He also has a dumb thicc Hulk Hogan mustache that feels like an ode to ’70s porn, even though all of this takes place in the year 2035.) Cactus Bill and his best friend/lover, whose name is—you might want to sit down for a second—Duck Teddington (Justin Theroux), are former American military medics who perform black-market surgeries for a Russian crime syndicate. What the hell do Cactus Bill and Duck Teddington have to do with Leo? Well, once Naadirah disappears and Leo goes searching for her in Berlin’s seedy underbelly, you’ll find out. Eventually.

For a roughly two-hour film, Mute takes a long, long time to get anywhere remotely interesting; it feels about twice as long, with tangents that serve no purpose but to flesh out this dystopian near-future. Not helping matters is the fact that Leo isn’t just mute—a unique obstacle combined with the character’s lack of tech knowledge, lest you forget that he’s Amish AF—but profoundly boring, prone to whittling wood when he isn’t communicating by writing in his tiny sketchbook. Cactus Bill and Duck Teddington’s side of the film is, without much competition, the more entertaining half. Jones gets great mileage out of Rudd’s and Theroux’s comedic instincts, most obviously on display during this exchange between Cactus Bill and a sweet old lady who was eavesdropping a little too obviously:

But the payoff for how Cactus Bill–Duck Teddington’s and Leo’s stories intersect is not only riddled with noir clichés, but doesn’t arrive until around 90 minutes into the film—at which point most people will have moved on to their phone or something else on Netflix. I wouldn’t blame them. If you must know—spoiler alert?—the big reveal is that Naadirah is Cactus Bill’s ex-wife and the mother of his child. Cactus Bill kidnaps and kills Naadirah before planning to leave the country with new passports for him and their daughter because he went AWOL before finishing his military service. Like Leo, I’m at a loss for words.

It’s a shame Mute turned out to be such a disappointment. Unlike countless other Netflix originals, including the previous two films I’ve covered in this sadistic column, Jones’s project doesn’t seem like it fell out of a content assembly line. This movie was clearly made with consideration and care. And while Mute owes a lot to Blade Runner and M*A*S*H—Cactus Bill and Duck Teddington were inspired by Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould from the hit movie—Jones had a distinct vision of the near-future, featuring clever details like drone food delivery services and a disconcerting amount of robo sex paraphernalia. (Welcome to ... Westworld?)

Mute’s, uh, muted reception might make it difficult for Jones to finish this very loosely connected trilogy. (Rockwell’s Moon character makes a brief cameo in Mute, which has absolutely no bearing on the plot other than, I guess, to serve as an unnecessary reminder that in this universe there are work stations on the moon.) But if the director had it his way, the final film would be an “action road movie” called Madi. Perhaps, given Mute’s obvious similarities to Blade Runner, the film would have a little Mad Max flavor to it. That sounds awesome; then again, I would’ve said the same thing in 2009 if you had told me this guy would make Berlin-based Blade Runner. If Duncan Jones’s Madi ever comes to fruition, let’s hope he has a lot more to say.