Saturday, February 24, 2018

On Netflix: MUTE (2018)

(UK/Germany - 2018)

Directed by Duncan Jones. Written by Michael Robert Johnson and Duncan Jones. Cast: Alexander Skarsgard, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Dominic Monaghan, Robert Sheehan, Gilbert Owuor, Jannis Niewohner, Rob Kazinsky, Noel Clarke, Mia-Sophie Bastin, Lea-Marie Bastin, Daniel Fathers, Andrzej Blumenfeld. (Unrated, 126 mins)

After establishing himself as a major new voice in intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi with 2009's MOON and 2011's SOURCE CODE, Duncan Jones jumped to the megabudget realm in 2016 with the $160 million WARCRAFT, an adaptation of the popular video game series. Met with a lukewarm response from the critics who loved his more brainy earlier films, WARCRAFT looks for now to be a franchise non-starter despite being a moneymaker everywhere but the US. After WARCRAFT and several tumultuous, emotional years of ups-and-downs in his personal life--his father David Bowie died in January 2016 and his beloved childhood nanny passed a year later, and he also became a father with a second child on the way after his wife emerged victorious in a battle with breast cancer--Jones decided it was time to make his long-gestating dream project MUTE, a script he wrote with Michael Robert Johnson (SHERLOCK HOLMES, POMPEII) way back in 2001 and was talking about as a potential second film nearly a decade ago when he was doing press for MOON. Jones was unable to generate any studio interest in MUTE at the time, but with Netflix agreeing to distribute pretty much anything, he finally found a way to get it done with little interference, allowing him to make exactly the film he wanted to make. A Guy Ritchie-esque crime saga in its earliest drafts, MUTE's screenplay went through numerous transformations over the years as Jones would periodically rework it before stuffing it back in the bottom desk drawer until he had more time.

Judging from the end result, it looks like Jones didn't so much revise as he just found ways to cram in every idea he scribbled in the margins over the years. MUTE is a hot mess, but it's at least a great-looking mess. The biggest obvious inspiration is BLADE RUNNER, with MUTE taking place in a Berlin roughly 30 years from now, looking very much like the neon dystopian cityscapes of everything from Ridley Scott's influential classic to Luc Besson's THE FIFTH ELEMENT and it even seems indebted to the Wachowskis circa CLOUD ATLAS. Mute since a childhood accident that could've been remedied had his devout Amish mother not refused surgery, Leo Beiler (Alexander Skarsgard) lives a largely low-key life tending bar at a flashy club called Foreign Dreams, where his blue-haired girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) is a waitress. He's ultimately fired after too many run-ins with customers who get belligerent with Naadirah, but things get even worse for Ben when she turns up missing after vaguely confessing "You don't really know me." In a concurrent story, AWOL Army medic and single dad Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) works for Maksim (Gilbert Owuor), the Russian gangster who owns Foreign Dreams. Cactus is working off a debt by operating on Maksim's goons as needed (bullet extractions, etc), and in exchange, Maksim is supposed to be obtaining forged passport documents that will get Cactus and his young daughter Josie (played by twins Mia-Sophie and Lea-Marie Bastin) back into the US. As Luddite Leo (who can barely operate an outdated cell phone and is referred to by one character as a "tech tard") tears Berlin apart looking for Naadirah, following clues that involve Maksim and shady pimp Nicky Simsek (Jannis Niewohner), his story will eventually--and cumbersomely--intersect with Cactus Bill's attempts to get out of the city with the help of his cybernetic surgeon buddy Duck Teddington (Justin Theroux).

The nuts-and-bolts of the story--Leo's stoical rampage through the seedy underbelly of the city--is the stuff of any number of generic thrillers you've seen a thousand times. Dropping that story into the middle of a gloomy noir set in future Berlin makes for some nice visuals, but the BLADE RUNNER worship is enough for Ridley Scott to obtain a restraining order, from the neon to the Spinner-style hovercars, the advertisements on the sides of skyscrapers, and Clint Mansell's electronic score that's filled with endless Vangelis and Tangerine Dreamgasms. It's also a love letter to his father's much-loved "Berlin Trilogy," with "Moss Garden" from 1977's "Heroes" and the Bowie-derived Philip Glass composition "Symphony No. 4 (Heroes)" making soundtrack appearances. There's shout-outs to German expressionism with one character owning a poster of the 1930 Emil Jannings/Marlene Dietrich classic THE BLUE ANGEL, and a general sense of melancholia that brings to mind what might've happened in an alternate universe where Wim Wenders made BLADE RUNNER. Further showing off his love of even the most off-the-wall German cinema, Jones at one point has Rudd's Cactus--who also carries a large Bowie (wink wink) knife--wearing a gaudy coat that makes him look like Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Wolf Gremm's 1982 sci-fi cult oddity KAMIKAZE '89.

There's a lot of good intentions with MUTE, but as is often the case when a filmmaker is granted a large budget and a lot of leeway, it looks like Jones couldn't bear to part with anything he wrote or shot. The first hour is a ponderous dawdle, with Skarsgard absent for long stretches while Jones makes the peculiar decision to have Rudd and Theroux act and dress like Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland in M*A*S*H, right down to Rudd's admittedly amazing horseshoe mustache that gives Gould's '70s look a run for its money. There's a gross pedophilia subplot that seems to belong in another movie, and for some reason, Sam Rockwell has a brief cameo as his character from MOON. Things go completely off the rails in the third act, in good and bad ways, with one character's abrupt exit and an another's actions turning it into an unexpected variation of THE VANISHING, with the whole "future Berlin" element pretty much abandoned. MUTE looks like Jones had fragments of ideas for a half dozen movies and threw them together without really smoothing out the transitions and the rough edges. But it looks good, there's some really impressive production design and top-shelf CGI, and there is one really astonishingly mean-spirited bit with the way one character is forced to spend his last gasping moments watching his worst nightmare become reality and can do nothing but die with the realization that he's powerless to stop it. A horrifying, devastating moment like that is evidence that Jones isn't slacking here, but he's juggling too many half-baked ideas and trying to pay tribute to too many things, and when the credits finally roll, it looks like a bunch of pieces that don't really fit. In the end, MUTE is a misfire, but an occasionally intriguing one.

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