Tyler Wilson: ‘Mute’ another stumble for filmmaker Duncan Jones

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As much as I commend Netflix for supporting emerging filmmakers and original ideas, the quality of the output needs to be more consistent.

For every creative success, like the Oscar-nominated “Mudbound,” Netflix releases a couple of turkeys (the biggest being the Will Smith orc cop debacle, “Bright”).

In the case of “Mute,” it’s hard to criticize Netflix for betting on Duncan Jones, the writer/director behind the masterful science fiction indie “Moon” from 2009, as well as the pretty good mainstream breakout “Source Code” in 2011.

Yes, Jones also made the 2016 fantasy snoozer, “Warcraft,” but it’s hard to dismiss the filmmaker after just one big budget misfire. Unfortunately, his latest brings the Jones filmography down to the .500 mark.

“Mute,” on paper anyway, appears to be a return to the form of “Moon” and “Source Code” — it establishes a futuristic world but tells a small-scale story within that world. In a dumpy near-future set in Berlin, a mute bartender (Alexander Skarsgård) searches for his missing girlfriend.

In a separate-but-obviously-related storyline, an American surgeon (the awkwardly cast Paul Rudd) works for the mob in order to obtain forged documents that will help him escape the country with his young daughter. Justin Theroux, with weird hair and an especially creepy vibe, plays Rudd’s surgeon partner.

Adding needless complication, Skarsgård’s bartender grew up Amish, so he takes an agonizingly long time to unravel the central mystery by avoiding technology.

The futuristic setting, which many reviews have negatively compared to “Blade Runner,” plays such a tiny role in “Mute” that it’s basically pointless to make the “Blade Runner” comparison in the first place. Move the story to present day Ohio and almost nothing changes, other than the thinly-painted urgency of a surgeon needing out of the country.

Skarsgård isn’t given much here, though it does him no favors having a great mute performance come out in such near proximity to this film (he’s definitely no Sally Hawkins in “The Shape of Water”). “Mute” would probably work better with more focus on the mute guy, but Jones splits the movie between Skarsgård and the surgeons. Rudd and Theroux play such drastically unlikable fellas that it becomes a slog waiting for the two stories to inevitably connect.

Theroux isn’t good here, but Rudd is particularly out of his element. Jones goes out of his way to write the character so disgustingly that even the naturally charming Rudd comes off dirty in the process, whereas I think Jones probably intended to use Rudd-Charm(™) to soften the role. Characters don’t necessarily need to be likable, but their motivations at least need to be compelling.

The third act of “Mute” simply isn’t worth the work it takes to get there, and what should be a heroic arc for Skarsgård gets bogged down in a lack of development. On the other hand, Jones spends way too much time on a Rudd-Theroux dynamic that still never once feels believable.

While I still have faith in Jones as a filmmaker, it may be best for him to work exclusively as a director, interpreting someone else’s dynamic screenplay. Further, it remains to be seen if Netflix will flex any creative muscle and guide filmmakers into making better films.

See ‘The Breadwinner” before Oscar Sunday

Netflix sadly keeps pruning its previously robust collection of existing movies. They do, however, occasionally acquire some gems. Take “The Breadwinner,” Oscar-nominated in the Best Animated Feature category and newly available on the Netflix streaming service.

Not your typical kid-fare, “The Breadwinner” follows a young girl living in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan who must find a way to earn money in order to free her wrongly-imprisoned father. It’s heavy material for sure, but the characters are richly defined and the movie finds ways to utilize animation to textualize its bleak environments.

“Coco” should and probably will win in the category. Still, “The Breadwinner” serves as an example of the storytelling diversity in animation right now. It sits in the very respectable two-slot behind the Pixar juggernaut.

Come back for more Oscar content

Check out Saturday’s Coeur Voice section for a complete list of Oscar predictions, including some speculation on the tight race brewing for Best Picture. I’ve seen all nine nominees, and like them all to some degree, though only four of them made my own personal top 10. Here’s how I’d rank the movies if I were filling out the ballot:

1. “Get Out” 2. “Phantom Thread” 3. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” 4. “Lady Bird” 5. “The Post” 6. “Call Me By Your Name” 7. “The Shape of Water” 8. “Dunkirk” 9. “Darkest Hour.”

•••

Tyler Wilson can be reached at twilson@cdapress.com

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