By Jacqueline Howell, Disarm Editor
I urge you to set aside two hours this weekend to watch the best film since 1982’s Blade Runner of new-noir near-future dystopian turmoil, the timeless, wordless truths of humanity, and the urgent pulse of love at its core. I want to encourage this viewing while saying as little as possible about plot points and key successes of the film, because I saw it knowing nothing but the lead actors and the director’s name. And that is enough.
If you’ve not been following the quiet career trajectory of Duncan Jones, the news about the new Netflix film Mute (which premiered February 23rd) might appear at a glance as another new “Netflix” film from the streaming service which has lately come to dwarf much of television, the cable networks, and cinema’s output. We’re starting to take Netflix for granted, aren’t we? A little spoiled? One can forget its had the most astounding growth and impact in just six or seven years from a mail order outfit competing with end-of-days Blockbuster, to the juggernaut of new riches it now seems to deliver on a weekly basis. Netflix is cutting edge and innovative, a fact not to be taken lightly, today.
Now that you’ve readjusted your Netflix experience and expectations, set aside time to dip into a world so fully-realized, you’ll greedily wish it was a series. You may slip like I did for those first 15 minutes of infatuation, thinking you can binge on this thing and spend the next couple of years with it, forgetting, in this format, in our cozy home viewing that has become the norm and is custom-tailored in all ways, that there is still EVENT FILM viewing, at home. There is still EVENT TV, but it emits from new places and may come in softly.
Mute is a rare film that renders me silent. This is not a pun. I’m usually effusive, can be a tweetstormer about things I love, and things that inspire me as a viewer and as a writer will not be contained: unless they are so rich, original and moving that they still me to silence. Mute is one of these films. They’ve always been rare to achieve without the bombardment of the cinema’s surround sound, big screen, and semi-formality. They are still a rarity with the forced focus we need for home viewing.
Mute’s world, crafted over years like all great works of art that end up looking topical and “easy”, is one audiences will recognized from the top level view, one we are quite at home in. The rain is relentless, the streets are a daily risk of survival of all manner of threats where people eke out a sketchy living, the sex trade is booming, umbrellas cannot be improved upon. The struggle is real, and there is an underground for everything. But what is being trafficked? Traded? Bartered? Who is running things? Is anyone? Mute offers a new hero in a world we recognize that is eternally slim on leaders, just like the real one. Alexander Skarsgård is cast perfectly as our reluctant hero, all 6’4″ of him leaning in to this role that demands a giant who can not only walk the walk, carrying the narrative on his shoulders, but also do it wordlessly. Our hero is mute. Our hero deserves awards for this role, his eyes communicating a range of feelings, and his body language making a notepad almost beside the point. Skarsgård has been going from strength to strength in recent years (such as the underrated 2016 film War on Everyone) and this is the pinnacle, right here. Try to take your eyes off him.
Mute plays with silence in new ways. The notepad is almost beside the point here, except when it is crucial, and then, it is used economically and to full effect. Mute uses music, language barriers, athleticism, violence, and tiny details that you could miss if you are not watching and listening closely. It is some sort of Christmas in the background of this film, a Christmas that has been shrunken down to music box-size in a fraught world beyond sentiment or celebration. It seems to live only in a retro cafe, the canned traditional music feeling anachronistic in the best way. It’s like Christmas feels to many people today: something that lives in a small box, in the past, marked fragile and only slightly tolerable. This is a small detail, an aside, one that illustrates one of the rich subtleties and ironies of the world of the film. One that gripped my heart and will not let go.
One does not have to care about gun control or ethics or social responsibility to be a film fan, but if one does care about these things, to see a world where they matter as much to the filmmaker as they do to me is a rare diamond. An unexpected treat. These details might be creative or budgetary choices, but I doubt it. I think that the roots of true filmmaking and their timeless qualities need very little in the way of wire work and computer technology to be real to the audience’s eyes. There is a reason why we always return to Kubrick and always will. Jones revealed himself to be a master out of the gate with his debut feature Moon (starring Sam Rockwell) which refers to Kubrick to better and fresher effect than any other director working today (at any budget). The effects in Mute look or at least feel largely handcrafted, in-world and in-camera (as opposed to heavy CG) in the best way. The effectiveness of these choices is nourishment to an elevated audience who’s been there and done that, and hungers for something different than the kill ’em all patina of many genre films.
A film that manages to use violence judiciously and weapons (or lack thereof) thoughtfully is, to this reviewer’s mind, the highest benchmark of action or sci-fi success. It is no less explosive, dynamic, and full of action. But the same skill that creates a believable hero who can weaponize unconventional things is here, also, one that makes every life and death matter on screen. This nuance and artfulness is an even higher benchmark to hit. Lives in a good film are not a coat hanger to hang a scene on. They are the narrative’s heart.
Layered onto an immediately recognizable world, its story and intricacies are highly original. The pacing is perfect, and genius casting throughout is something out of wild fan fiction. Paul Rudd, as against type as he’s ever been since my generation began crushing on him in Clueless, multiplies his resume with this tour-de-force performance as a complex, dark American, his jaw squared, trudging through various kinds of exile, a man trying to protect his child from the ultimate evil, sugar, while spending time around a bordello. The humour in this piece is elegant, wry, and pointed, but will no doubt sail over numerous heads, making it even funnier. Your perspective will depend on your worldview, maybe even your own place on your own map. Mute is darkly funny and always profound. The laughs are well-earned, the sadness is stilling. The twists true cliff-hangers and unpredictable. And then you remember it’s not a series but the rarest of things, a beautiful film that is over. The film’s dedication adds layers of unexpected depth to fans of Duncan Jones and fans of other people as well. Hours later, even a close watcher might see new layers of what this film is saying about life, about love, about inheritance, and about legacy. Cue the waterworks.
Deftness is something rare in film, in lit, in music, in any kind of art, especially something built piece by piece to be shared with the wider world, the Netflix world. It’s the deftness that is so stilling. So worthy of reverence. Mute is a natural point on the trajectory started with Moon, with years in between. We are seeing an ascension, something through a telescopic lens, something earth-bending. One suspects Jones has been thinking about all of it since he was young boy, and has artfully rendered the most personal questions about what is in our DNA and in our family environments in his work in a rare and marvelous way. What will he do next? It will be worth the wait. It is a body of work, a reclamation and an artistic statement of a lifetime. Don’t miss it.