Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) is a lo-fi guy living in a hi-fi scifi world. He was raised Amish, and keeps up the plain and simple lifestyle, but not in an Amish community; in the bustling, grimy, neon-lighted city of near-future Berlin. A childhood accident left him mute, so his quiet life is literal too. He has one friend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) his girlfriend. And she has been keeping secrets from him. When those secrets cause her to suddenly disappear, he goes looking for her, but he has no idea of where to start, or what he's getting into.
|Directed by the wonderfully incorrigible Duncan Jones. Never, ever change.|
This is the most pure scifi-noir film I've seen since Blade Runner, and it's about time. Science fiction and film-noir go together wonderfully, and often get paired up, but the tech-noir phase pretty much always puts the scifi first -- the noir is for tone and mood. I love that of course, but I also enjoy a noir-plot, and to get those you still have to go back to the 1940's. Until now. Mute follows a classic noir plot structure faithfully, and makes sure to include traditional elements of the genre. Then it uses scifi on the side to put cool twists on it all.
At its core, it's a mystery thriller, plain and simple. No time travel, no body swapping, no aliens, no distant galaxies, no extended action sequences. In fact the way the bits of action and violence is done is extraordinarily good -- brief, and shocking, and often shown passively, which only enhances the effect. And the intensity build throughout the plot is a thing to behold. That last turn was completely unexpected. But Leo spends most of his time following clues, and the truth is revealed to us slowly. The only thing that breaks the noir protocol is a parallel, bad guy plot involving American surgeon buddies Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux). Clearly they're involved in the mystery, but we never find out how until Leo does.
|He wears the best Hawaiian shirts.|
Cactus, with his magnificent mustaches, has that Paul Rudd charm, and a daughter he cares about, but is not a nice guy. But Duck, complete with perfectly horrendous floppy hair, and an annoying penchant for the word "babe" is far worse; and as we learn this, it was interesting to watch him slowly surpass Cactus on the evil scale. He's a creep times a thousand. Rudd has never been this good in a role, and I've not seen him give one bad performance. It's like the character was written for him, yet he still gave it a steady stream of unexpected twists. And Theroux -- my goodness. He made me feel sick, and my skin crawl, and I might have hated it if it wasn't so incredibly impressive.
I did wonder why they were so heavily featured, especially as their plot goes down a dark and seemingly unnecessary path. But when the two plots merge, it all makes sense and ties importantly into the theme. Also, Leo doesn't talk, so his scenes get to the point fast. They have to. But Cactus and Duck get to banter and chit-chat, and take their time. Then their side of things actually serves Leo too. Their being fully developed characters whenever they meet him helps things make sense, and allows the movie to focus on developing Leo in those scenes, instead of being distracted with villain motive. Whenever Leo is present in a scene, that scene serves him; doggedly. It refuses to become distracted, and I love that.
|He certainly has a presence. And if looks could kill, his sad faces would be as deadly as his angry ones.|
My dad suggested that Leo could have done noir-style narration via inner dialogue, and I half expected him to constantly use sign language which would then be captioned for us, but no; narration and captions are both cop-out solutions to a challenging character. Jones took the hard route, and the result is worth the trouble in spades. Alexander Skarsgård portrays Leo's every emotion, thought, and intention physically; expressions, body language, and actions. He signs and writes down a handful of things -- all minimally. Like the tagline says, he doesn't need words. They made sure that was true, and it works beautifully; he is heartbreakingly raw and open, and absolutely mesmerizing.
And he's not only an exceptionally interesting, different, well acted and written character; he really does lead the film. Even with the significant handicap of never speaking; the story revolves around him, and it's him that we care for. We get to see -- not only hear -- that he's kind and gentle, innocent bordering on naive, but will literally fight to protect the people (person) he loves. Naadirah, a blue-haired beauty instead of a blue-eyed beauty, at work seems just a part of the neon bustle, but then she washes off her garish makeup and treats him with equal love and respect a she does her. Their relationship is so unexpected, yet makes so much sense.
|They're so sweet together.|
This is another great example of a film where the darkness makes the light brighter -- the goodness of their relationship and his character, poised against the movie's many deplorable beings; some of whom accept the grime and depravity of the city's dark neon underbelly; others who create it. I ran the movie through VidAngel to remove the sex and nudity, but the film still deals with mature and dark things; all the better to explore a character who is defined by innocence and morality. The conflict was as contrasted as the neon and black visuals.
Besides the basic plot structure, Mute's atmosphere is decidedly noir, with a Blade Runner-like city of casually-used run-down technology. The best way to describe it is "neon-noir" as it often takes place at night, lit exclusively with neon lights. And that femme fatale character... all I can say is that it was unexpected, and worked perfectly. I also liked that it was set in Germany, and featured a few German characters. Maybe because I like German, maybe because of the tone it helped create too. It remembers to be depressing and pessimistic, but doesn't leave us hanging heartlessly. Like I said, there's light here, and hope, and it looks fondly on the purity of innocence.
|Too bad none of the characters smoke. Watching people smoke in dramatic lighting is one of the finer things in life. And super noir.|
All the elements I love in modern films are here -- a compelling lead with meaningful arc, moral exploration without preachiness, plot complexity that requires attention, and attention to detail and visual beauty. That is all paired with noir film tone, tropes, and structure; violence that isn't glorified or stylized; and emotion that isn't heavy-handed or exploiting. I have literally wished for a movie like this. I can hardly believe it exists as a real thing now, let alone works as well as it does. Striking on every level; compelling from its first moment to its last.
Duncan Jones obviously had a specific vision for this film, and it clearly was the last thing anyone expected. It's non-conforming, and non-traditional for these modern times. I know it's not something that everyone should be able to enjoy. It's niche -- but not that niche. People aren't saying it's just not for them, they're saying it's badly made. But it was made purposefully to mimic an old film noir, and that it undeniably does, so I say it's undeniably successful. That's why the plot is hard to follow, and "strangely" structured. There certainly aren't any glaring holes. It doesn't exposition us to death; character is revealed naturally; and it stays focused on what's important -- on what it wants to say.
|And it's beautiful, but doesn't get hung up on being beautiful.|
Appropriately, everything it says is said without words. It's all conveyed through subtext, imagery, even symbolism; and of course, expressions. With a title and a hero like it has, why in the world should it be expected to outright declare what it is? It gives us enough clues, if only we could shut up and listen. A throwback to the filmmaking past, a neat speculation into a realistic future, and a thoughtful and hard examination of good, evil, innocence and corruption; Mute is a scifi-noir film for the ages.
Perhaps age will see it gather the understanding it deserves.