08 March 2018
A film by Duncan Jones
reviewed by J.R.Thomas
Should’ve Been Nicer, Bill
If you get nothing else from seeing this movie, remember this: it pays to be nice. You never know when you might come to wish you had been kinder.
This moral of Mute might also apply to some film critics. Your correspondent tends not to read other reviews before he sees the film he is about to review, fortunately in this instance. He might well not have seen the movie had he read in advance what the scribing industry had to say. They seemed to hate it; though for many and varied reasons.
But before we critique the critics, let’s deal with the movie. This is a film long in the making, intended by Duncan Jones, whose major successes have included the acclaimed Moon and the brilliant Source Code, to be his magnum opus. It pays due respects to some magnificent movies, most notably Blade Runner (also a critical failure when first released, so cheer up Mr Jones) and MASH. It is Blade Runneresque, to be sure, set (and filmed) in Berlin, but Berlin forty years on. Film makers have a grim view of what awaits us and here it is again; the rich are very rich and privileged, the poor grindingly poor. We open with Leo, a young Amish man working as a bar tender and in love with Naadira who works in sexy underwear in the same sleazy bar (Berlin has not changed so much). Leo is mute and not good with technology, the reason for the somewhat odd backstory as to his Amish origins.
Naadira vanishes and Leo goes looking for her, handicapped as he is by his inability to function effectively in the modern techy world. Interwoven into this tale is another, of two deserters, American military doctors, living on the run and earning their crust by carrying out operations for underworld hoods. The two stories gradually interweave and collide. A relatively simple tale but with many sub plot complexities, cooking up into a good old fashioned thriller, but one set in a future which, like Bladerunner, does not make the future look good. It is a long film but time does not drag, not least because the lead characters are well formed; the baddies are not wholly bad and the goodies not entirely good – indeed we are well into the film before we are sure who is a goodie and who is a baddie. The cast are not famous but do an impressive job – Alexander Skarsgård as Leo (not easy to play lead with a nonspeaking role); Justin Theroux and Paul Rudd as the doctors. Although there were apparently budgetary issues (the film struggled to find a backer and has been funded by Netflix), money constraints do not show.
So why have the critics panned it so much? It is hard to say; there are a few daft bits – the whole Amish backstory is a bit unnecessary just to set up a hero who can’t speak and is not good with techie stuff. There are certainly derivative elements but Jones has made it quite clear that this is deliberate homage. The plot is complex and occasionally sets up diversions that come to nothing – whether to keep the tension up or because there will be a longer director’s cut extending the loose ends in a few years, who knows? There is a soupcon of toe curling violence, for those with sensitive toes, but critics are pretty inured to that (one feels for their home lives).
There has certainly been criticism of the sexual tastes of one of the characters (no spoilers here) but this issue is dealt with carefully and is a key part of the movie.
Could it be that the critics don’t like Netflix? There is some concern in cinematic circles about the growing influence of Netflix and the power it is taking away from conventional film making and makers. Or perhaps Netflix just stinted at the critic’s screenings, serving warm prosecco and insufficient sausage roles (those budgetary issues finally biting)?
It surely can’t be that old fashioned issue that those who can, direct, and those who can’t, write reviews. Much has been made by the scribblers about Mr Jones’ background (Mr Jones, it should be said, has kept it pretty quiet and the average film goer will not make the connection). But Mr Jones was born not Duncan Jones, but Zowie Bowie, son of David of that Ilk, an identity Zowie/Duncan dropped in his teens. He has made his own way without trading on the connection, but maybe a little ill-will rankles in some quarters about unfair distribution of talent.
This movie is not the magnum opus Jones hoped for, but it is a very good film and one to keep you grippingly entertained for its whole 243 minutes. It should also leave you pondering a few thoughts about where the human race might be headed; and, not least, remind you to be nice to your friends; you just never know.
“Mute” is on limited release to cinemas but may be hard to find. It is available by subscription to Netflix .