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Mute: Dissecting Duncan Jones' messy tech-noir — Part 1

The introduction of this 3-part analysis is an overview of Mute's story and critical reception.
[This article contains spoilers for Mute.]

After directing two low-key, enjoyable sci-fi movies—Source Code and Moon, Duncan Jones gained a cult following and ventured into blockbuster filmmaking. In 2016, his adaptation of the acclaimed video game Warcraft disappointed even many of its fans. Since then, Jones has managed to make Mute, his passion project of 16 years, while dealing with family matters.

The negative reviews

Riding on Netflix's platform and policies, he planned to tell a story of many layers, with a visual style that evokes the recent cyberpunk aesthetics of Blade Runner 2049 and Altered Carbon. Mute is even called "a sci-fi Casablanca" thanks to its portrayal of short-lived affection amid the world's socio-political turbulence. Jones enthusiastically teased it on his social media before its premiere on February 22. Despite the Warcraft misfire, critics and movie fans still had hope in him. Making that shiny disaster, for Jones, was more about dealing with corporate politics than perfecting his craft.

His latest sci-fi effort joined the likes of Bright and Cloverfield Paradox in a block of disappointing duds—slick and promising but too superficial to sway critical responses. While a lot of Netflix viewers enjoyed it, Mute was panned by critics, sitting at 15% Rotten Tomatoes approval.

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On my first viewing of Mute, I understood why Netflix took the project under its production. Mute's twisted issues can only find their chance at the streaming service, where Jones has full leeway on his overcooked ideas. The final product, however, comprises two seemingly independent stories, which clutch each other in one moment of vulnerability and humiliation—more on this later. If Jones wanted us to engage with the story, his plot and subplot must work around each other with enough tension and coherence. Watching Mute is a laborious task that might leave viewers empty and exhaustive.

To everyone's surprise, the legendary writer of cyberpunk novels, William Gibson, praised Mute on Twitter. Gibson is famous for his detailed descriptions—to the point that if a painter or a director wants to translate his prose to images, little is left for imagination. That's what I thought after reading Neuromancer.

Among the aforementioned 15%, IndieWire wrote, "It merges heavy pastiche in a unique formula, and the risky endeavor indicates genuine talent," while CommonSenseMedia saw great potential in the mix of "laughs, irony, and a very sympathetic hero with gore, pedophilia, and obscenities." So what fascination did they, particularly Gibson, find in the narrative of Mute? Two months after the release of Mute, MovieWorms examines this moody, confusing piece of sci-fi and looks for a beating heart that Jones was, and is still, confident about.

The plot

"In order to mold his People, God often has to melt them," and another Netflix big-budget movie starts with a proverb. The first time watching Mute, I tried to overlook this Bright vibe.

Lead character Leo (Alexander Skarsgård, fresh from the success of Big Little Lies) is a mute Amish man. When he was a teenager, his throat was damaged in a boat accident. Leo's mother, adhering to her religious practice, refused to treat him with modern technologies, and he carries that disadvantage into maturity. Thirty years later, Leo lives in a futuristic Berlin and works as a bartender—together with his waitress girlfriend Naadirah (Seyned Saleh) at dingy nightclub Foreign Dreams. One day, she vanishes, with a few traces that elicit Leo's amateur detective skills. And off he goes into the dirty, neon-lit night of Berlin to find her.

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Running along with this main plot (I guess?) is a crucial thread, which is almost as important yet far more hectic and appealing than Leo's one-man quest. The subplot follows Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Donald "Duck" Teddington (Justin Theroux), two vulgar surgeons working behind the business front of Maksim (Gilbert Owuor), the owner of Foreign Dreams (gasp!).

Many investigative beats and unpleasant revelations later, Leo finds out Naadirah was dead and Cactus killed her (through weird revelatory flashbacks). Moreover, they used to be a couple and even had a little daughter, Josie. Naadirah's love for Leo was sincere, but she only stayed with him temporarily while earning enough cash to take Josie away from Cactus. Leo kills Cactus, then Duck gives Leo an electrolarynx and asks him to apologize for killing Cactus. Even though Duck holds the most responsibility for his friend's death after Cactus finds out Duck is a pedophile. To save Josie from Duck, Leo drowns and kills him. The triumphant hero shares a touching moment with the girl before taking her to her grandmother—Naadirah's mother. That's the gist, which is too much for us to digest during 20 minutes.

Jones conceived the story years ago and planned Mute as his first movie. However, he couldn't afford to, and after Warcraft, he put Mute in the same world of his directorial debut Moon, the Sam Rockwell-led sci-fi movie about a lonely man on a Lunar station. Well, Rockwell's engineer Sam Bell appears many times in Mute's background news.

(Part 2: How Mute is so personal to Jones)