Mute pays tribute to Duncan Jones' father and maternal figure, and here's its emotional significance to him.
After an overview of Mute, MovieWorms offers a deeper dive into Mute's most overlooked aspect amid the neon lights and futuristic technologies: Leo and Josie as children.
Leo's social isolation
Leo is an old-fashioned man set against a futuristic world. He loves Naadirah, leads a modest lifestyle, and finds happiness in his sketchbook and woodworking. When Naadirah goes missing, Leo cuts through the complication of advanced infrastructures and depraved services. That's what Jones aims at, and at certain junctions, he intrigues me.
Thanks to Leo's "outdated" lifestyle and patience, his investigation moves forward. At first, the muteness seems only exist for Naadirah to appreciates his loyal silence while life is roaring with deceptive technologies. She keeps complimenting him on being a lovely soul, and his characterization speaks, though faintly at times, for this affection. Two scenes of heartbreak leave viewers with enough impression of Leo's thoughts, and Skarsgård cogently expresses his anger and helplessness, especially when Jones puts him under water. Because many services require voice command, Leo is obstructed by the simplest machines. But his patience, concentration, and flexibility overcome those procedures.
Sexual proclivities also play out like cacophony around Leo. We see this through side characters like fetishist Oswald (Dominic Monaghan), who wears a Geisha getup and having sex with two pleasure robots, and Luba (Robert Sheehan), Naadirah's close friend. Luba and Naadirah don't have a sexual relationship, but what holds them together is sexual. As Leo later finds out, Luba works a side job as a prostitute, in the name of Naadirah, to earn money for her because he hates himself enough to do that—from his own words. He even cross-dresses and sports artificially modified breasts on him.
The voiceless children
There are expressions of Jones' personal lives alluded and reflected on Leo and Josie, aside from the setting of Berlin and the title card in the ending, which honors his father David Jones (aka David Bowie) and his nanny, Marion Skene. Born in 1971, Jones stayed with his rock-star father during Bowie's Berlin era (76-79). After his parents' divorce in 1980, Jones only met his mother until he was 13. It must've taken a toll on him.
Berlin resonates with Jones a lot, with public announcements via electronic speakers doling out exposition and the feeling of oppressive isolation from his experience with the city. Bowie found in the bleak, culturally disorienting cityscape a sanctuary for his cocaine addiction, and so does Cactus for his military desertion. Production design is mixed with Bowie's eccentric art, which pursues serenity and gratification for one's inner self. (One of the music records on Leo's table reads "Phillip Glass' Symphony No.4 Heroes from the music of David Bowie and Brian Eno.")
In many ways, Leo and Josie are similar, seen in their common favorite activity: drawing. It's a form of childlike, developmental escapism and one of the few defense mechanisms children know. Leo keeps his head down, fulfilling his obligations while keeping his personal life serene and spiritually rich. The wood-carving bartender is a grown man, but his muteness and kindness—when seen with Skarsgård's imposing figure—invites mistreatment from vile people who find him silly and vulnerable. Stu (Noel Clarke) and Rob (Robert Kazinsky) are such people, who harass Naadirah and Leo on the basis of their despicable, patriarchal mindset regarding alpha- and beta-males.
Likewise, the world around Josie is violent and wicked, due to Cactus' lifestyle. She shields herself by speaking little to nothing and only focuses on her papers and crayons. Josie spends as much time with babysitters and prostitutes as with her father—Cactus drops her off at a brothel and asks Tanya (Florence Kasumba) to take care of her whenever he finds it convenient. Being a child is about having no agency; Josie has no control over her life. Mute establishes this idea in its first minutes through the devout irrationality of Leo's mother. In Josie's case, the overprotective Cactus has only a general idea of child-rearing; he violently scares away the harmful factors and doesn't let her eat sweets. That's it.
But Cactus isn't the negative exception of parenthood. No, most parents imbue their own demons in their children, consciously or not. Parenting is already difficult and without qualifications. I'm not saying it should be state-sanctioned, but this noble and daunting "task" has a certain level of radical freedom to do both right and wrong. Parents aren't just parents; they must be someone else to society, at least in terms of professions. The various roles inevitably clash with one another and suffocate the person in desperation and puzzlement.
(Part 3: Why Leo is Jones' main character, not Cactus)
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