A filmmaker doesn't craft a movie like Mute unless they're truly passionate about it.
Mute is long. Mute is weird. Mute feels hyper-specifically rooted in iconography (particularly Casablanca and Blade Runner). Mute is dedicated to the director's father and former nanny, both of whom passed away as he prepared this film. This all adds up to why Duncan Jones' Mute is such an unfortunate mess; an aimless two hours where it takes forever for the central mystery to unravel and, by the time it does, you don't really care at all about the “big reveal”. While fastidiously designed and written/filmed with an ear/eye for idiosyncrasy, Jones never really feels like he's working toward a point with his neon noir anti-narrative. The viewer can sense the great disparate notions that inspired the Moon filmmaker to return to this loosely connected universe, but the picture never finds its purpose; opting instead for decent enough design porn.
The plot of Jones and Robert Michael Johnson’s (Pompeii) script - so much as there is one - is split between two sets of characters. Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) is the titular silenced anti-hero – a Luddite bartender at a trendy club who can't speak due to a boyhood boating accident. The love of his life is Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), a blue-haired cocktail waitress who doesn't want her dark past to return and haunt the new lovers. To be frank, the opening scenes centered entirely around this couple are the movie’s most affecting, as Leo professes his love to the girl, while she warns him of the danger to come; Clint Mansell's (The Fountain) ambient score rising and falling the whole way. One morning, Leo awakens to find she’s gone: vanished into thin air and absent from the bar the next day. Thinking he may have lost the most important thing in his universe, Leo sets out on a quest, hoping to track her down - a simple, wood-carving stranger in this strange land of buzzing tech.
Operating on the other side of this meandering story are a pair of bisexual surgeons - Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux) - who stitch together wounded soldiers for the local mafia. The partners met while they were serving in the military together, only their appetites sent them in different directions. Despite being pretty much an altogether unbearable asshole, Cactus Bill tends to a tiny daughter, while Duck pines for underage girls in schoolgirl outfits. They make for a great working relationship, but totally shitty lovers. Bill can't stop berating everyone around him. Meanwhile, Duck is cooing "baby" at him in a half-assed plea for serenity, while eyeing any sort of flesh that surrounds them. Out of the two storylines, theirs is the most interesting, but only because Rudd and Theroux are committing to creating a rather colorful duo; clad in bowling shirts, comfy cardigans and bleached blonde hair.
However, for all the tics injected into both Skarsgård's lumbering, silent man of violence - punching patrons before Naadirah ghosts him, while roughing up robo-geisha boys like Oswald (Dominic Monaghan) during his self-made mission - and the back-alley doctors' personalities, none of the actors seem capable of crafting actual human beings inside this artificial wasteland iteration of Neo Berlin. Skarsgård comes the closest, using his big blue eyes as these cold, constantly scanning orbs that look like they're going to burst with tears if he even slows down for a second. However, Theroux is bad, and Rudd is worse (possibly giving the weakest performance of his career), molding the surgeon soldier boys into these abrasive predators that we can barely stand to spend five minutes with, let alone over half a major motion picture. You don't need to make your characters likable or even relatable for your movie to be good, but we should at least be able to watch them bowl without wanting to claw our eyes out.
In fairness, Moon cinematographer Gary Shaw does a solid job bringing these neon-drenched sets to life without looking like a complete carbon copy of Ridley Scott's immortal classic (though it comes close). Some have complained that this big budget sci-fi endeavor looks "cheap", but it more seems like production designer Gavin Bocquet was simply fine with the audience recognizing that everything in this world is fake in some way. The plasticity of Mute's aesthetic seems purposeful - a visual counterpoint to the "living off the land" existence Leo hails from. Jones is also cribbing heavily from Casablanca, knowing that Mute is built around a story astute audience members will recognize right off the bat. So, instead of delivering sepia tone nostalgia, he transplants Michael Curtiz's classic into a garishly silly fanfic-ready futurism. That's not cheapness, it's a choice (though perhaps a poor one).
Yet that seems to be the main issue with Mute: Jones ostensibly is making every choice in order to appease an audience of one, instead of actually showing a little charity toward his characters by gifting them forward momentum (not to mention a climax that isn't utterly unpleasant to sit through). Sometimes the biggest problem with passion projects is that their primary focus seems to be pleasing the artist as opposed to pleasing both the artist and their audience. Self-indulgence is fine, as long as it carries a healthy dose of diverting intent along with it. Mute simply seems to exist for the sole purpose of bringing us back to this world (via a rather disappointing background detail, mind you), only to observe the dilemmas of some of its least charismatic individuals (a pity, as every actor involved is beyond talented). Perhaps the co-writer/director simply needed to exorcise this from his system; a purging of iconography he'd been holding onto, only to start afresh with the next picture. Let's hope so, because Mute is such a giant step backward, it places Jones behind Moon's eclipsing rock. That's no place for a "spiritual sequel" to be.