WARNING: Full spoilers for MUTE (2018), partial spoilers for CHINATOWN (1974)
[Note: I don’t usually write film/tv criticism. If I’m honest, my interest in cinematic mediums has been slipping in this age of content-rich/ imagination-deficient programming, but I digress. As it is, there’s so much already written, consistently written, immediately written; within nanoseconds of any new release. Reviews, podcasts, opinion panels, aftershows and ‘Explaining the Ending of’ videos vivisecting every visual, theme, character, plot beat and twist. Splaying it all out like a lab experiment.
I won’t get into the critical merit of spoon-feeding the audience (I guess I just did) but I couldn’t help seeing irony in the brief burst of contempt followed by damning silence for MUTE, director Duncan Jones’ long-gestating companion piece to his beloved 2009 one-man sci-fi pageant MOON. No benefit of the doubt, no deeper read. No attempts to treat this most unusual film or its cast of oddballs and misfits as anything other than the “Latest Netflix Dud” (Variety).
I won’t waste time trying to change opinions or list and rebut the criticisms bouncing around the internet echo chamber. Instead I’d like to take a stab at what I’d hoped to find in the first place—a deeper look at MUTE’s characters, structure and theme. Because it’s honestly the first program of 2018 that’s lingered in my mind longer than the time it takes to turn off the TV. Long enough to compel me toward a second viewing (a rare honor!) and ultimately to write this rambling essay.]
MUTE is marketed as a sci-fi action thriller, which may be its biggest mistake. The film is unabashedly neo-noir. What’s the difference? For starters, noir is not really about its mystery. Derived from hardboiled fiction of the Great Depression when confidence in American institutions was fast eroding, film noir commandeered a prototype of parasitic crooks feeding off crooked systems and drove it deeper. A noir mystery is not so much a riddle to be solved as an existential labyrinth blinding its characters to a truth—usually primal and human, and all the more unsettling for it. (What’s the real shocker in CHINATOWN: the land grab scam Jake Gittes uncovers…or the perverted sanctity of family embodied by predatory patriarch Noah Cross?) The world of noir is not black and white, but holistic. Man is held accountable for the environment he’s trapped in. The defects in one are firmly rooted in the defects of the other.
I don’t mean to harp on NOIR 101, but it’s so often conflated with plain old mystery, and understanding the difference is essential to an appreciation of a film like MUTE. Because MUTE is not what it appears to be on the surface: a man’s knightly quest for a damsel in distress. This may frustrate some viewers, but misconception is the driving force of the film and its mute hero, lapsed Amish man Leo, permanently waylaid in neo-Berlin (presumably amid a mass exodus back to the Rhineland).
We learn in the film’s opening moments that it was a boating accident in his youth that rendered him voiceless. There is much to be gleaned from the image of an Amish boy separated from his tight-knit and isolated community, adrift and gravely wounded by a leisure boat from the outside world. Leo yearns to swim in unfamiliar waters, even at his own peril. The aquatic metaphor is not only convenient for this little essay, it’s an ongoing motif. Water, marine life, the color blue all become symbols for a desire to connect with a larger world, to delve into the beautiful and frightening unknown.
30 years later, enter Naadirah: blue-haired mystery woman who waitresses at the night club our hero bartends. Leo is besotted. He swoons over her, fights for her, carpenters ornate (aquatic-themed) beds for her, and embarks on a city-wide quest for her when she goes inexplicably missing…all without really knowing a thing about her. Some critics say this makes him a dull white knight of a character, but they’re overlooking the obvious. And this is what elevates him from a seemingly one-note sap to a nuanced and flawed hero:
However decent his intentions, Leo who so yearns to connect has failed to do so. With Naadirah, with the world at large. He lives among them, but is stuck in self-inflicted stasis. In fact, when Naadirah shows up in tears on his doorstep the night before her ultimate disappearance, Leo halts her from recounting her troubles. As long as she’s not leaving him, Leo lets her know, “then nothing else is important.” It’s innocent enough and couched as a romantic gesture. But we later reconsider the implications…
If Leo had been truly open to this woman, to her issues, her pain, her flaws and her baggage; open to the idea of her being more than the embodiment of his Beautiful Unknown…might he have stopped the horror that transpires?
The failure of human communication. It lies not only at the heart of Leo’s quest and ultimate transformation, but as a guiding principle for the trajectory of every character in the story. What MUTE is really about is the ongoing human struggle to break beyond the confines of ties, traditions and presumptions and to forge true interrelationships in a world where everyone is blabbering but no one is listening.
Which brings us to the “antagonists” of the piece (for lack of a better word). Cactus Bill and Duck, best buds and defected US military medics running a blackmarket clinic for the local Berlin mob. The former striving to smuggle himself and his “liberated” daughter back to the US; the latter a seemingly easy-going loafer content to spend life taking it easy as “the big fish” in Berlin’s cybernetic pediatrics pond. Did I mention appearances can be deceiving?
Much has been criticized about these two: their eccentricities, their “tonally-jarring” but scene-stealing performances, even their overall significance (or lack thereof) to the story. But I’ve not seen too much said about their inherent and clearly intentional contradictions. Two boisterous, bullishly outmoded Americans haunting a foreign, neon-soaked city. Two men of healing betraying their Hippocratic oath. Two partners in crime who secretly despise what the other has become (one a fiercely devoted father, the other an unabashed pedophile). Two scarred psyches burying their demons beneath a sardonic, superficial tête-à-tête.
But the truth is in their eyes. This is where they become indispensible to the story. Leo may be physically disabled and unable to speak, but if we’re paying attention we realize these two are spiritually disabled, barely able to maintain the front of civility. They are dangerous, short-circuiting human hearts in a state of meltdown.
It is a compliment to actors Rudd and Theroux that as ugly as Cactus and Duck get, you can’t take eyes off them. It’s hard not to pity them. So severed from the lifeblood of humanity, the only companionship they find is that which they pay for, or steal, or leech off one another. Confiding in, but sabotaging each other at every turn. It’s a bizarre and unpredicatable dynamic that ultimately shifts the conflict away from Good vs. Evil and toward Outward- vs. Inward-looking human perspectives.
This conflict comes to a head in a series of reveals which I won’t spoil save to say it is the turning point both for the story and for the viewer. Because it’s a reveal that’s prosaic and tragic in equal measures. And here we separate those interested in an honest-to-god noir film about human characters and the simple defects in their hearts from those who demand a lot of world-shaking whiz-bang whodunnit.
For my money, I’ll take the first. Because it’s the simple truth that shocks us out of our stupor in a loud and distracting world. And it’s the simple truth that shocks Leo into real action. Not to reclaim what belongs to him, but to speak out for that which doesn’t. Establishing that deeper human connection which might be stronger in all our hearts if we’d be quiet a moment and listen. Making the unknown known.
MUTE is currently streaming on Netflix. Try tuning out the vitriolic white noise out there, give it another watch, come to your own conclusions.