Mute, Duncan Jones, 2018
Any proper reference to ‘cyberpunk’ worth its salt will also see fit to invoke the genre’s godfather, William Gibson. This is good critical protocol. Yet the overwhelmingly negative reaction among critics to Duncan Jones’ new SF-noir Mute suggests few ever made it past the first sentence of Neuromancer: “the sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
A better verbal crystallization of what we now refer to as the ‘Blade Runner aesthetic’ (and what the production design of Mute unabashedly apes) probably wasn’t written. And yet, for all the two have been critically conjoined, Blade Runner was never an especially close likeness of Gibson-brand cyberpunk. Blade Runner’s characters and dialogue conformed heavily to noir tropes in a way Gibson’s never did. Gibson pointedly complicated and ornamented his stories with detail and diversion, as a means of suggestive world building – Blade Runner, like plenty of good cinema, simplifies and essentializes as a principle of form.
Mute, a two hour odyssey through the subterra of a future Berlin, embraces this yen for literary tangent (it may, in this way, more closely resemble something like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil than Blade Runner – Gilliam never balked at a noisy composition). Its central thread sees Alexander Skarsgård as the titular mute, attempting to locate his missing girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), after she abruptly disappears. Balanced almost in kind is a secondary narrative following homesick yank Cactus (Paul Rudd), a this-scalpel-for-hire AWOL military surgeon hustling for forged travel papers to spirit himself and his daughter back to the US.
Between these two avenues of approach, as well as the film’s many easter egg asides, Jones constructs an engagingly cohesive diorama of morally kaput substrata, one that distinguishes Mute as an original weave of its shopworn neon threads – although it might be said that, side-by-side, the lurching, Pynchonesque vim of the Cactus storyline can make the film’s flagship narrative (your garden variety rabbit hole sleuth) feel a little drab. Rudd’s Cactus is a garrulous, hard-drinking counterpoint to the looming abstemious hulk of Leo, and it’s his gusto in the role – alongside Justin Theroux’s Duck, an ex-Army buddy – that becomes the lifeblood of the film. They’re Gibson’s kind of characters, too: all loud, unrefined edges draped over distinct technical (here medical) proficiency, plying a highly specialized trade in damp grottos, displaced in space.
Jones clearly caught a head of wind with these two, but it’s his steadiness of hand in playing the pair’s obvious screen charisma against their (increasingly) sinister qualities that charges their story. There’s nothing quite as complicated going on with Skarsgård’s Leo, a sort of holy innocent in this cesspool, albeit one with a taste for sudden and efficient violence if the occasion suits. Here we’re on often slightly shakier ground – certain setups and payoffs (a lovingly hand carved bedpost latterly employed as a bludgeon) registering rather trite, the central emotional thrust never quite convincing.
Not to say that he’s an unsuitable hero for this story. Literally mute owing to a childhood tragedy, Leo – a somewhat idiosyncratically practicing Amish – also eschews most modern conveniences of technology. The obvious commentary here is that anyone swimming upstream against the onrush of the new social technologies will soon not have a voice – but to his credit Jones doesn’t over egg the pudding, instead allowing the idea to find its footing in the nooks and crannies of the narrative.
In an early scene, for example, before her disappearance, Naadirah rather force-gifts Leo a phone – a chunky, hard-cornered version of what we’d recognize as a smartphone (the rest of the world seem to have moved on to aural-optical implants and pendant necklaces). The phone, as employed by Leo, is a purely functional device – a means to communicate, and used only when needed.
This demotion of the hardware’s contemporary characteristics (as an ubiquitous personal augmentation, a means to project and promote the self) reaches its zenith in one of the film’s most compelling scenes: a patient, painful, anti-Google sequence in which, tracking a lead armed only with a landline number, Leo must stockpile and scour the print telephone directories for the associated address.
There’s a potency in this idea – the telephone returned to its origin and most fundamental mechanics, tied to a physical location, valuable only as a tool to reach out to others.
It’s in moments like these that Jones most effectively delivers on his concept. His city is noise, a casino floor vying for all free attention, and increasingly so too is our notion of communication: information given and consumed in alarming quantities, in radically shifting contexts. For Leo, unable to indulge, unable to divulge, navigating this metropolis through the base principles of its operations, what distils is a simplicity of purpose, a clarity of thought. When he finally speaks, sparely, in the film’s closing scenes, it’s to reach out to someone – and only as needed.
Verdict: worth a look.