Actions speak louder than words is the tagline for Duncan Jones’ latest Sci Fi offering and ten minutes into the film and you can see why. Mute follows the story of Leo, an Amish man living in a near future, dystopian Berlin. Due to an accident when he was a child, Leo is unable to speak and so communicates through gestures, writing and drawings. Despite their being a handful of films, which centre on a moody, quiet protagonist exacting revenge, nothing has come along recently that has created an impact since 'Drive'. That is until now. Alexander Skarsgard gives a very impressive performance as Leo. Like Gosling, Skarsgard manages to simultaneously appear vulnerable and sensitive, while at the same time being intense and intimidating. He balances these two traits perfectly, utilising each one at the right moment for the desired effect. His icy blue eyes can be cold and piercing one moment, then fragile and watery the next. In some ways the decision to have him mute adds more impact then 'Drive', as his silence makes all of his enemies nervous and awkward.
The other aspect to his character is his Amish upbringing and belief. Although he isn’t as strict as most Amish followers, the lingering effect of his family’s influence is highlighted throughout. His traditional attitude and innocence is in stark contrast to the futuristic city that surrounds him. The image of this reserved and respectful man working behind a bar in a techno strip club is striking and adds to the already interesting visual style that is at play here. Religion is a theme that is explored from the start of the film and continues to be an important factor as the story unfolds. His muteness although not caused by his Amish lifestyle is affected by it, when his parents refuse treatment, leaving it in the hands of god. Then later, at various points in the film, Leo struggles to overcome difficulties, either due to his lack of voice or his inability to use technology. His choice to fall in love with a stripper, actually use a phone and drive a car is all fuelled by his repressed anger at religion. Leo is a character, who from the start always seems to be out of control of situations or worse prevented by others from doing what he wants. So, when he does finally snap, like Michael Douglas in 'Falling Down', in is truly satisfying to watch.
Leo isn’t the only striking aspect of this film. The world itself is so vibrant and prominent it is almost a character itself. What I like about the film, is that even though there are flying cars and robots, there are still elements that are familiar with the current world. Like 'Blade Runner' it has a retro feel to it, opting for Tokyo style holographic billboards emblazoning the various buildings and speeding hover taxis, with 80s style lift up doors and bulky bumpers and hoods. These elements would hurl it further away into dystopia, if it wasn’t for the secondary characters that inhabit the world. Actors such as Noel Clarke and Dominic Monaghan give it cultural relevance with their down to earth and recognisable personalities. Even Paul Rudd, who brings something very different to his role, still has that zany, offbeat humour that grounds the film. The city itself is a great visual representation of the story’s tone. Near the start of the film, the bright lights, hypnotic music and colourful characters give it a glitzy allure. However, as the story unfolds, the city becomes colder, harsher and unsettling. There is a real sense of atmosphere to the piece and part of that is influenced by the strange and surreal world that Jones has created.
It is hard to talk about one nemesis, as Leo seems to be surrounded by antagonists and it seems that he is constantly fighting to overcome evil. Paul Rudd is technically a bad guy in this outing, and although he doesn’t seem inherently evil, there is a definite dark presence lingering inside him. Rudd gives a notable performance, lulling viewers in with his aptitude for comedic timing and execution. However, it soon becomes apparent that there is a nasty, violent side to his personality. The fact that he has a young daughter makes for an even more conflicted viewing. The decision to explain his behaviour as being linked to him being a deserter from the armed forces is incorporated very well, despite it being a tad cliché. At the end of the day though, PTSD is a serious matter and it is both brave and commendable that Jones decided to tackle it. One scene sees a drunk Rudd flying off the handle at a security guard, after he is caught stealing peanuts. The inner demons spill out in this confrontation and it is written and performed fantastically.
There are a few issues I had with the film. For one, despite the acting, world, style and concepts being incredibly strong, I did feel the choice to have the age-old story of a man falling in love with a stripper, who mysteriously disappears a tad cliche. There are a lot of films that feel the need to throw in mangst as the driving force behind the story. In this instance I can forgive it, as the characters, setting and style are so unique that it just about gets away with it. Although the romance element is a tad generic, the little nuances such as Leo’s secret project and the way they communicate with one another, keep it fresh and stop it from stagnating. It is always important to note that Leo’s love interest Naadirah is the only person bar one, he doesn’t have issues communicating with. After she disappears, Leo finds himself constantly struggling to understand other people or them not able to understand him. It serves as a good plot device, adding to the other conflicts he is already faced with at every turn.
It is also saved by the fact that it suddenly turns from a film about love and loss to something a lot darker. There are technically two twists to this film. The first I suspected but the second was a surprise. Both these twists explore the darker and more sinister aspects of humans. Everyone has a limit to what they can deal with. For example, I do not get disturbed by murder as much as I probably should. Rape on the other hand, I find extremely disturbing. For those that are worried about this, there is no rape in the film. It has always been my opinion that there is no need for this in films. I can just about handle it being insinuated but there is no need to show it. Although this film doesn’t deal with that, it does deal with another very sensitive subject. So much so, that at points I was unsure whether I could carry on watching it. Although very well done, it is highly unsettling. Having watched the whole film, I would say that Jones did well. He did not go too far. More is implied than anything else and although stomach churning, the eventual outcome did have me sighing in relief, that the light overcame the dark.
As well as Leo being an interesting protagonist due to his muteness and Amish upbringing, there are other traits that make him appealing. His relationship with water. His accident occurs in water at the start of the film and the concluding events of the story end in water. Throughout, he reveals that he has a curious ability to hold his breath for a very long time, as we witness him swim an entire length of a pool and down a whole glass of water. But this is not just a kooky quirk. By the end of the film, it becomes incredibly relevant and crucial that he has an ability to do this. The other aspect of his personality is his love of drawing, crafting and building. Underneath this insecure and unsure exterior, is a soul bursting with a confident voice, demonstrated through his art. Again, like with the water, it is actually crucial to the unfolding of the story and later becomes highly crucial in the eventual outcome. The small images and clues that are littered throughout are highly symbolic to the story and the world and Jones’ attention to detail is astounding.
Mute is one of the most unusual and fascinating films of the year. It excels in its hybridity, presenting relevant and relatable themes in a futuristic world inhabited by weird and wonderful characters. The fact that Leo is mute, only reinforces the fact that everyone else around him who can talk, are less interesting and more dislikeable then he is. What almost is a love story, fuelled by mangst becomes something much more poignant and although the darker themes it explores are unflinching in their examination, they are explored in a tasteful and well-conceived way. The rhythm and pace are executed perfectly with slow building tension punctuated by hard hitting moments of impact. The characters are engaging, the word rich and vibrant and the narrative twists and turns at any available moment, making for an exhilarating nail biting watch. If you’re in the mood for something raw, exciting and which leaves a marked impression, then Mute is definitely worth your time.