“Mute” closes with a dedication to director Duncan Jones’ childhood nanny, and to his father, David Jones, aka David Bowie. Even before that blatant acknowledgement, “Mute” has obvious personal ramifications for the director by communing with Bowie’s legacy, with a Ziggy Stardust remix of neo-noir tropes. From a familiar set of references, the movie forges an unexpected narrative stew — namely, the story of a voiceless Amish man in a “Blade Runner”-inspired Berlin (which, of course, carries plenty of Bowie resonance on its own). “Mute” is ludicrous, but within the confines of its referential logic, also pretty cool.
It’s a mad gamble that works better than it should, and though it never quite finds its natural rhythm, stands out as one of the strangest Netflix original productions to date — a messy, off-the-wall conceit made with a sizable budget — and it could only have found support from a studio capable of luring audiences on the basis of the movie’s resemblance to other material. Whereas “Bright” offered Netflix subscribers hip to Will Smith movies and “Lord of the Rings” the mashup they never really needed, “Mute” suggests what might happen if a user had “Blade Runner,” “Witness” and “M*A*S*H” stacked together in a Netflix queue and flipped between the three until they became interchangeable. In an age of algorithms-mandated greenlights, we know for a fact that things could be worse.
Still, it’s tough to swallow the setup as “Mute” settles in. In a brief prologue, young Amish Leo suffers from a debilitating boat accident that leaves him with substantial tissue damage; a nurse says that surgery can restore his ability to speak, but his mother refuses, proclaiming that only God can help him now. Cut to decades later: It’s 2050, and Leo’s a grown man now played by Alexander Skarsgard and living in a futuristic Berlin, although it looks a lot like the Los Angeles of both “Blade Runner” movies: Flying cars and shadowy skyscrapers dot a landscape alongside blaring neon ads and silhouetted crowds. Set one year after the recent “Blade Runner” sequel, it may as well exist in its expanded universe, but it’s actually more of a dreamlike echo.
Jones trades a moody cyborg hunter for Leo, a lanky man with soft features who leads an innocent routine, wears dusty clothes and still driving around town in an old car, maintaining his Amish rituals even as he works as the bartender at a seedy nightclub and maintains a relationship with blue-haired waitress Naadirah (Sayneb Saleh). By all indications, she’s a gentle soul who cares for Leo and wants the best for him, but he can’t stand the way the men at the bar treat her and she begs him not to intervene. But he’s a strong guy who doesn’t have words at his disposal, and when a couple of local gangsters make some unwelcome advances, he can’t help himself. In the midst of this drama, Naadirah promptly disappears, sending Leo into hardboiled detective mode as he careens through the subterranean world to find her.
This actually describes only half the plot. “Mute” intersperses Leo’s plight with the unlikely ballad of Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux), a pair of AWOL military vets who scrape by doing underground surgical work. Bill’s a hard-drinking single dad sick of Berlin and keen on scoring papers that would let him smuggle his way out of the country; Duck’s the leering sidekick with a thing for underage girls. It’s a disturbing dynamic at odds with their rambunctious chemistry, yet at the same time, the actors invest so much in their unruly characters that they often steal the show.
Bill and Duck are the villains of the story, though it takes some time to establish them as much, because Jones seems to be having so much fun writing his own versions of “M*A*S*H” scene-stealers Trapper John and Hawkeye (he admits as much in the press notes). Rudd, wearing an exuberant handlebar mustache and carrying a giant knife around in his back pocket, turns in a cartoonish psychopath that register as his most far-reaching role ever, while Theroux defaults to camp. Their antics ultimately circle back to Leo’s quest, but it’s such a separate trajectory that they never fully gel together.
Still, the dissonant ingredients speak to Jones’ broader vision of a bustling metropolis defined by outsiders, where lonely Amish and clandestine military vets dot the streets in mutual disdain for the outside world. All things considered, Jones juggles these ingredients well enough in individual moments, but they can’t overcome some of the clumsier bits in the script (“I’m AWOL, you’re a-hole”), or a third act reveal that doesn’t quite hold together. Tonally, the movie suffers from a disconnect between earnest storytelling and broad caricatures.
Jones demonstrates true vision in his quest to fuse them together, but even as Skarsgard gives an understated performance based purely on subtle shifts in expression, Leo’s too opaque of a character to become the silent centerpiece the movie attempts to make him. He seems to adhere to strict religious standards (no surgery, no technology) and yet maintains a secular romance and lives well beyond the boundary’s of his family tradition for reasons never fully explained. The movie’s key drama rests on his investment in a woman we barely get to know or care about, so Leo’s central emotional struggle rings oddly hollow throughout. It doesn’t help that a lot of the supporting characters register as crude stereotypes, including a flamboyant bartender and the oodles of empty bad guys who stand in Leo’s way.
Nevertheless, Jones is clearly striving to develop something fresh out of well-trodden material, and “Mute” at least provides a few reminders that Jones is a notable genre director. After his superb minimalist noir “Moon” and the brain pretzel “Source Code,” Jones’ misguided “Warcraft” adaptation suggested his originality had been consumed by the dark side of studio-driven spectacles. In contrast, “Mute” is imaginative enough to bring him back to steadier ground. It merges heavy pastiche in a unique formula, and the risky endeavor indicates genuine talent. One passing glimpse of Sam Rockwell’s multiple clones on a TV set implies Jones has developed an expanding universe of his own. The genre stands to benefit from his continuing exploration of it, rather than more love letters to the movies he adored as a kid.
“Mute” winds down with a series of violent conflicts and meandering showdowns until it finally lands on a touching conclusion. The movie echoes Bowie’s otherworldliness in art and life with sci-fi exuberance and undeniably soulful yearning. The stakes revolve around the rather obvious conceit of a man cut off from the world who finally finds his voice, but at the same time, they illustrate the plight of a filmmaker grasping to find one of his own.
“Mute” is now streaming on Netflix.