Why ‘Mute’ on Netflix is great, the critics are wrong, and you probably are too.

Words: Patrick Kolan | @PatchKolan

I went into Mute not knowing a whole lot about it. It was so low-key a release that it flew under the radar of the target audience (that is, me). Then I was told that the critical response was resoundingly negative—running to about 15% positive on that aggregate marketing doom-beast Rotten Tomatoes. The audience approval was split right down the middle at 50%. First thought: hold up. This movie is really good. There’s a lot going on here; a lot to unpack. What gives? Why the icy reception? Let’s drill down.

Quick story recap: Aleksander Skarsgård plays a mute Amish bartender who gets dragged into a deepening mystery around the disappearance of his girlfriend. He crosses paths with a very mustachioed Paul Rudd and things get dark in this neon Germanic dystopia.

It’s a setup with some great hooks: an Amish mute hero living in a future that’s all about voice and technological interaction; a whodunit that crisscrosses a neon city full of gender non-binary heroes and villains; a thumping soundtrack and visual motifs that look pulled straight from William Gibson’s brain. So far, so good.

Duncan Jones (Moon, Warcraft) wrote and directed Mute – and this is much more Moon than Warcraft, in terms of quality and tone. Somehow, in the middle of a(nother) season of safe-bet superhero movies, reheated science fiction and licensed films, along comes Jones with this incredibly dark, risky and off-beat story. It’s gory, sometimes funny, frequently shocking – but above all, smart. And what happens? It gets dumped on Netflix, to be picked at by an effects-numb and content overladen critical circuit (and guys like me who don’t know what to expect). It seems unfair; it seems defeatist. It was made to die a slow death.

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Seyneb Saleh andAleksander Skarsgård in Mute.

Let’s talk about the critical response. Critics felt it was convoluted and poorly written. The presumably same overlapping audience that deemed Netflix’s Altered Carbon worth 65% positive critical response and a whopping 90% positive response from readers has also damned this film to being somehow redundant. It isn’t.

Well, I’d argue Altered Carbon is uncreative. It is hand-holdingly “safe-play” stuff; unconvincing in its world-building and poorly acted next to the steady hand and considered pacing here. This piece isn’t going to dissolve into a beat-up on Altered Carbon, but don’t try to tell me with a straight face that these are powerhouse performances or an original pitch.

As per Rotten Tomatoes’ Critics Consensus: Visually polished but narratively derivative and overall muddled, Mute is a would-be sci-fi epic whose title serves as an unfortunate guide to how it might be best enjoyed. …Sounds like the usual clever, if glib, blurb, but it’s a short-sell response to the offering.

Find me another Amish action hero – particularly one who isn’t played for laughs. I’ll wait. Skarsgard’s nuanced facial expression and physical presence create a gripping and memorable performance. Find me another performance as polished and surprising– and balanced, too– as Paul Rudd’s portrayal of a tortured anti-hero. These are multidimensional performances and characters with more than a gun to define their persona. German-born Seyneb Saleh is as beautiful as she is unconventional as a lead actor. She is compelling to watch, and it’s refreshing to see a role go to someone other than an Anglo-Saxon, white woman with a curvy figure and bedroom eyes.

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Best thing Paul Rudd has done in a long time – and he’s great in most things.

The supporting cast is just as surprising and assured: a hijab-wearing Arabic mother character is so refreshing, when in other hands, it would have been all too easy to cast yet another white face. This is absolutely a credit to the director. So too are the other supporting cast members – an unrecognizable Dominic Monaghan (Lost, The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Robert Sheehan (Misfits, the upcoming Mortal Engines), both wonderful in challenging parts.

Find me a film that deals with gender politics, perversion and parenting in the same breath as the above points. It’s not that Mute is perfect – it’s not nearly. But what it tries to build is something refreshingly mature for a piece of science fiction; more akin to the first Blade Runner than Blade Runner 2049. It has the hard-nosed attitude of Drive interbred with another low-key, slow-burner – Annihilation, from Alex Garland. Like Annihilation, this too deserved more attention for creative risk-taking.

Here’s my too-long, didn’t-read internet-ready bottom line: this film deserved a wider release, more critical attention and a second look from you. Mute was laboured over by a director with an attention to detail—not just visually, but in terms of performance. This is an actor’s director and a filmgoer’s. Mute has a creative integrity sorely lacking in so many wide-release genre films and it should be applauded for this.

If films like this keep falling back on Netflix as a bail-out solution from risk-averse distributors and producers, conventional cinema will shudder and die. If films like this stop being funded altogether in favour of crowd-pleasers rather than crowd-challengers, we’re damned. That’s your most plausible dystopian future, folks. 

4 stars

 

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