Duncan Jones’s Mute suggests an entire season of a mediocre sci-fi series that’s been haphazardly reduced to 126 minutes. The film’s setting is Berlin 40 years in the future, and over that time it’s become the same neon-hued, graffiti-pocked, advertisement-ravaged dystopia that’s figured in countless films that have followed in the footsteps of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. Cars fly bleak skies, and drones—in a nice touch—deliver fast food that’s ordered through phones that haven’t changed much since 2018. Screens are everywhere, which can sync up with personal devices, making further sport of the annihilation of privacy. And this setting, as unsurprising to Jones as it is to us, just sits there on the screen, having nothing to do with the film’s narrative, which is a self-consciously odd and stillborn mix of missing-person mystery and rehabilitation parable.
Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) is a mute Amish bartender who works at a club inhabited by the obligatory assortment of strippers and gangsters. The stiff, absurdly naïve Leo is in an unlikely relationship with Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), a waitress with gorgeous blue hair who’s clearly hiding something from him—namely because she frequently says that she’s hiding something from him. Meanwhile, and this is a film of many meanwhiles, “Cactus” Bill (Paul Rudd) portentously stirs up trouble and Naadirah disappears. Bill is eventually revealed to be a private surgeon for the gangsters running the bar (a promising idea that goes nowhere) who once served in the army with his partner, Duck (Justin Theroux), a cool customer with skeletons of his own.
Of course, Leo takes it upon himself to find Naadirah, doing the usual expositional tough-guy shuffle with a variety of lowlifes, and at no point in the film does his quest feel as if it actually matters. Mute is so slow and arbitrarily over-plotted that it’s difficult to believe that Jones also directed the spry and enjoyable Moon and Source Code. Those films were slim genre offerings that understood what their respective narratives were, while Mute oscillates listlessly and uncertainly between Leo and Bill and Duck, taking nearly the entirety of its running time to bring them together.
Leo makes for a tedious hero, who’s defined by his muteness, which has little to do with anything and which shackles Skarsgård with a gimmick that he’s unable to transcend. As if attempting to fill the void that Skarsgård leaves in the film, Rudd overacts wildly and likeably; nothing that this character does here is believable or coherent, particularly when the man turns violent, but the film needs whatever energy it can muster. Meanwhile, Theroux divertingly coasts on his hipster cred while donning a blond wig, though his character is hampered with a gross, nonsensically glib plot twist.
Like the directors of many future-set fantasies, Jones uses Mute’s setting as an excuse to indulge passing whimsies. Several scenes feature a child who’s temporarily overseen by flamboyantly dressed prostitutes, and one can’t help but wonder if these interludes serve as a form of autobiography for Jones, who was born Zowie Bowie and who presumably had an insider’s glimpse into the rise of glam rock. (Mute is dedicated to Duncan’s father, David Jones, a.k.a. David Bowie, and mother, Mary Barnett, a.k.a. Angie Bowie.)
In these sequences, Jones lingers on the prostitutes, showing how their personalities shift as they change or remove garments. Jones displays curiosity and empathy, which temporarily threatens to elevate Mute above its standard hodgepodge of clichés and dead ends. For a few moments here and there, one’s allowed to enjoy emotional textures, rather than being marched through endless narrative “development.” One wishes that Jones had remained with the prostitutes longer, just as one regrets the thoughtless squandering of the half dozen other ideas that might’ve born fruit if nurtured. Mute ultimately reduces its elements down to passing, interchangeable stimulation—to “content”—canceling itself out before our eyes.