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.
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.
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.