It’s hard to sit through Mute and try to imagine why Duncan Jones waited 16 years to make this movie. But then, it’s hard to sit through Mute at all.
[Warning: The following contains very minor spoilers for Mute.]
Mute isn’t just a bad movie; it’s also confusing and lacking in any real merit. The score that is sprinkled in sporadically tries to make up for the rest of the film’s blundering mess, but to no avail. There’s too much going on in Mute, and yet nothing really happens. The acting chops of its lead actors are wasted, the gorgeous visual aesthetic fades into the background; what remains is a film that leaves us with more questions than answers, scratching our head in befuddlement.
Mute has been subject to its own opprobrium, leaving Jones to defend himself and his film from obnoxious people on Twitter who feel the need to mention him as they proclaim their personal embarrassment for his work. Most of the professional criticism is valid, but much of it also ignores a big part of Mute’s undeniable appeal and intrigue: Jones’ personal take on parenthood.
Buried within the fluorescent lights lining German streets and secret, cavernous underground operating rooms, hovering just above Mute’s main story of a man trying to find his missing girlfriend, is a tale of children forced to adapt to their parents’ lifestyles. Josie (Mia-Sophie Bastin), a young girl who exists at the center of the film, doesn’t have any say in how she lives with her separated parents. Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), Mute’s main character, cannot speak; his parents decided to not allow a surgery that could have saved his severed vocal chords. They live with the consequences their parents make, their voices ripped away.
Both Leo and Josie are forced to navigate a cruel world full of temperamental people. Leo learned as an adult how to make decisions for himself and change the trajectory of his own life, but Josie is still just a young girl who needs someone to protect her from the devastations of reality. Mute fails in clearly trying to tell this story, but if you squint hard enough, you can see the strings of Jones’ own heart pulling with every decision that Leo makes.
It may not seem like there are many similarities between Jones’ own life and what happens in Mute. By his own accord, Jones has lived a pretty spectacular and privileged life. He went to live with his father, the iconic and beloved singer David Bowie, when he was 13, and traveled the world. Jones hasn’t compared himself to Leo or Josie in interviews, but it’s impossible to ignore that some of the most formative years of Jones’ life were affected and directed by his father’s fame. Jones didn’t have too much of a say in where he lived or what his life looked like; he, like most other children, lived according to what his parent decided.
But Jones doesn’t try to hide how important of a figure Bowie was in his life. He dedicates Mute — the first movie he ever wrote, close to two decades ago — to the memory of his father and his nanny, Marion Skene. The dedication follows the film’s last shot, closing in on Leo and Josie walking off together, two children finding strength in each other’s newfound freedom. It’s cathartic watching two lost people find hope as Jones remembers two of the most influential people in his life.
It’s nothing short of heartbreaking and beautiful. The events in Mute are exaggerated, but there’s an underlying confession slithering through the belly of the film, all of which brings us to its biggest issue: Mute is disappointing because Jones’ personal connection to this story could have been obvious, but it’s wasted.
There’s an amazing story full of heart and reverence sandwiched between the ends of a more traditional sci-fi movie, an important message about the beauty in an ordinary childhood masked behind unrelenting, boring characters. Mute’s superhero is perseverance, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the film on your couch.
I’m disappointed in Mute. What held promise of disrupting the stereotypical sci-fi norm became nothing more than a forgettable, bland smorgasbord of typical movie tropes. Sex, violence, gratuitous fluorescent lighting and an eye-roll-inducing Nirvana cover are all present. Every time a played-out trope appears on screen, it diminishes the promising, shining bit of hope that disappears just as quickly as it arrives.
I can’t recommend Mute to anyone, but I can say with full confidence that I hope Jones eventually makes the movie he hinted at within — the story within the story that seems to be of the utmost importance to him.
I’m tired of stories about the beautiful and the damned. It’s time for sci-fi to embrace the aspirational, wide-eyed characters hiding in the shadows, waiting for a chance to tell their stories.