Review: Mute

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

PLOT: A mute Amish bartender (Alexander Skarsgard) navigates a futuristic Berlin to find the love of his life, whose disappearance is somehow linked to the antics of two former military surgeons (Paul Rudd & Justin Theroux).

REVIEW: I knew something wasn’t right with MUTE long before it hit Netflix. When you invest the kind of coin the streamer clearly did into it, you don’t hide it if you have confidence in it. Heck, their own A FUTILE & STUPID GESTURE played Sundance, and it wasn’t good at all. So, when I learned that MUTE, despite premiering right after the Berlin Film Festival, wasn’t going to be showing in the city it took place in, missing what would have been an ideal launch, I figured something was up. To be fair, the streamer did send out review copies two days before it premiered, one of the few things that gave me hope, but it, in the end, it wound up being savaged by online critics in a way that’s shocking considering how well regarded director Duncan Jones is in the community.

A kind of quasi-follow-up to MOON (look for a telling cameo early on), MUTE is a passion project Jones has been trying to get made for years. He’s talented – there’s no doubt about that. MOON was very good, SOURCE CODE was likable (although I was among the few critics cool on it when it came out) and WARCRAFT was a lot better than its rep suggests. Like that latter film, MUTE isn’t as bad as the reviews are saying – but it’s not that good either.

One imagines that the reason Jones had a rough time getting it made at the studio level was the paper thin protagonist, played by a blank Skarsgard. I get that he’s supposed to be an innocent in this world, but I don’t buy it. He’s Amish but also shown to have been living outside of the community for years. His doe-eyed thing doesn’t work, especially when he keeps himself in Herculean shape, and is so quick with his fists – a very un-Amish thing to be. He’s unable to speak due to his mother refusing medical treatment after a gruesome childhood injury, but that’s nothing else about the character that suggests any kind of inner life. He’s a supremely dull hero to hang a neo-noir around. There’s a reason Raymond Chandler’s Moose Malloy is a side character and Philip Marlowe is a protagonist – one is just more interesting than the other. Here, you have a movie that’s just Moose Malloy, no Marlowe, and it’s dull, especially in the deadly first act.

Luckily, things pick up in the second half, where the focus shifts to Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux’s meatball surgeons, patterned after Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland in M*A*S*H. Rudd’s Cactus Bill is a wanted man, being an A.W.O.L military surgeon, working for the underworld and hiding with his former colleague, Theroux’s Duck, who hides a secret. It’s clear as day that Cactus Bill is by far the most interesting character and should have been the lead, and when Rudd is on-screen, MUTE comes close to working, despite an unseemly pedophile subplot that’s poorly handled. Rudd aces his darker-than-average part, and his chemistry with Theroux is spot-on. Had they been the stars of MUTE, people’s reactions might have been a lot different.

To bad then that whenever MUTE is on a roll it cuts back to Skarsgard’s deadly dull quest. It doesn’t help that Jones is so committed to not having any action whatsoever to spice up the film, even cutting away at what seemed like it might be a good fight scene. One can’t fault the technical side of the film, with the future Berlin being gorgeous to look at, but then again – so was VALERIAN – and at least it moved. MUTE is a slow slog, and something I bet a lot of Netflix viewers bailed on after the first act, although, again, it does get better.

Whatever the case, Jones has made exactly the movie he wanted to make, and despite the horrible reviews, there are some redeeming factors and Jones will make other, better films I’m sure. This is a rare case where meddlesome studio notes might have actually made MUTE a better movie.




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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.