Filmmaker Duncan Jones, whose debut feature “Moon,” starring Sam Rockwell, was a critical darling in 2009, has always been proud to wear his influences on his sleeve. His latest effort, the future-noir “Mute,” debuting Friday on Netflix, takes homage to an extreme and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
The references, conscious and not, serve as constant reminders to the audience of other, better, movies, rendering “Mute” more atonal hodgepodge than carefully orchestrated pastiche. Jones’ stated inspirations such as “MASH” and “A Clockwork Orange” compete with the likes of “Blade Runner,” “Cabaret,” “Witness” and “The Blue Angel” for space in one’s mental streaming queue to the detriment of the story he is trying to tell.
Written by Jones and Michael Robert Johnson, “Mute” is set in mid-21st century Germany and features a doleful Alexander Skarsgård as Leo, an Amish man who lost his ability to speak in the childhood boating accident that opens the film. Moving forward 30 years from the accident, Leo is living in Berlin, working as a barman in a club and in love with a cocktail waitress, the blue-haired beauty Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh).
Frequenting the club is a vulgar American surgeon named Cactus Bill (an unabashedly against-type Paul Rudd). Cactus works off the books as a fixer for the club’s Russian owner, Maksim (Gilbert Owuor), sewing up gunshot wounds and performing less Hippocratically-sanctioned duties, while maintaining some tenuous connection to the U.S. Army.
Aiding and abetting Cactus is another American expatriate, Duck, played by Justin Theroux, an ex-Army buddy who runs a high-tech pediatric prosthetics clinic. While Duck couldn’t be happier in the decadence of Berlin, Cactus holds an oft-spoken contempt for Germany and testily awaits delivery of forged passports and new IDs for himself and his young daughter Josie, so they can flee.
Skarsgård’s Leo is literally the strong, silent type, exuding a Zen calm that belies a capacity for anger as he eschews the city’s omnipresent technology in favor of sketching and woodcarving. His kind and gentle nature and folksy ways endear him to Naadirah, yet she attempts to draw him into the modern world with the gift of a mobile phone so they can text.
Theirs is a dark fairy-tale romance, one that Naadirah fears she does not deserve. Leo gazes upon her with unfettered adoration and gives her wooden charms he whittles featuring aquatic creatures. (In fact, water, somewhat heavy-handedly, permeates Leo’s existence with his deep-dive swims at a gymnasium and the large glasses he gulps to quench his rage.) Like a classic femme fatale, Naadirah has secrets. Waving aside her painful attempt to share them, Leo writes to her in his sketchpad that as long as they’re together, nothing else matters.
The next morning Naadirah disappears, leaving a devastated Leo to scour the city, increasingly crossing paths with the acerbic Cactus Bill. Though her absence provides the film’s narrative thrust, Saleh is heartily missed. In her first big international role, the German-born actress shows real presence and without her, the film sags under the weight of testosterone.
It’s a violent, brutal world where men communicate with harsh words, fists and various objects of both the blunt and sharp varieties. Aside from Naadirah and little Josie, who barely speaks, there is a shortage of significant female characters and the film suffers. Jones may be making a point with this but it feels outdated.
As Leo searches for Naadirah, the pacing of “Mute” doesn’t meet his urgency, bumping and lurching as we spend time with Cactus and Duck. Based on Trapper John and Hawkeye of “MASH” fame (1970 movie version), the duo even respectively sport Elliott Gould’s mustache and Donald Sutherland’s tinted glasses. The script strives to capture the same irreverence and bonhomie, but the repartee is not nearly as clever as it thinks it is or needs to be. Rudd and Theroux gamely avoid caricature or imitation but can’t escape Cactus’ misanthropy or Duck’s skeeviness, and their ultimate connection to Leo lands as a massive contrivance.
Visually fluid and assured, “Mute” is easy on the eyes. As much as Gary Shaw’s cinematography and Gavin Bocquet’s production design evoke “Blade Runner” and the dark, garish neon of its many imitators, there are witty details to feast on. It’s a credibly-rendered vision of the future, complete with drone-delivered dining. Additionally, Clint Mansell’s score, craftily augmented with alternative versions of songs by David Bowie (the director’s late father) and Nirvana, creates a sonic touchstone even when the narrative runs amok.
In returning to a smaller, more human scale after the big-budget flop “Warcraft,” Jones has made his most personal film, exploring ideas such as fatherhood, motherhood (or the absence thereof) and the purity of children that are clearly important to him. “Mute” is dedicated to his own father (as David Jones, his birth name) and Marion Skene, the nanny who helped raise Duncan after his parents divorced, both of whom died as Jones worked on the film.
Jones reportedly conceived of the film years ago. However, as the story evolved and took on more emotional themes he never found the right balance between the sentimental and the hard-boiled. As resonant as the personal may potentially be, it gets lost in a quagmire of influences.
In English and some German with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Playing: iPic Westwood; streaming on Netflix