I was pretty excited about the prospect of this Netflix movie. I actually knew nothing of the plot before I started watching and I refused to read any reviews as I wanted to go in with an open mind, but any movie written and directed by Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code, Warcraft: The Beginning), son of David Bowie and starring Paul Rudd (my favourite actor of all time), Alexander Skarsgard and Justin Theroux was bound to be incredible right?
This is the second film of Jones’ trilogy, the first being Moon (2009) which I absolutely adored. I was also pleased to see that Clint Mansell of Requiem for a Dream fame (or in my mind still most famous for being in the band ‘Pop Will Eat Itself’, who provided at least part of the soundtrack to my youth), was writing the score for this movie, as he had done Moon, too. The score is absolutely as epic as I imagined it would be.
The story begins with Leo (Alexander Skarsgard), an Amish man living in Berlin, who has been mute since a boating accident as a child. His strictly practising mother had refused medical assistance for him, putting his fate in the hands of God. It is the year 2052, and the city looks more than a little Blade Runneresque – dark and dingy alleyways, with neon lights and advertisement boards to add stunning colour, the occasional flying car, but not too many – and it certainly has a cyber noir feeling but that really is as much of a comparison that can be made. It is only in that the film is based in the future that makes it Science Fiction. As it is only set 34 years ahead the technology we see is realistic, yes there are a couple of flying vehicles and video games are played through contact lenses for a very personal experience, but this is not a movie about artificial intelligence, aliens or the supernatural in any way. This is a film about love and the depravity of human beings, some things will never change.
Leo lives in a traditional Amish way, with no modern technology in his apartment, much to the bemusement of his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) who is his polar opposite style wise, vivid blue hair and makeup, the most up to date pendant phone and totally in with the modern crowd. Despite his lack of speech she has fallen for him, deeply. His innocence and simple ways are obviously attractive to her in a world where everyone is fake and no one can be trusted. She herself is full of secrets. They both work together as bartenders at club ‘Dreams’. It is here we first meet Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd).
Cactus is an American military surgeon gone AWOL who applies his trade to fixing up injured goons and torturing them too when required, for Maksim, ‘Dreams’ club owner and Russian Crime Boss. Cactus desperately wants to leave Berlin, along with his young daughter Josie. In payment for his less than pleasant services, he wants new identities for them both from Maksim. Duck (Justin Theroux) is also a surgeon, legitimately, fitting prosthetic limbs and implants, and does a bit of the crime stuff on the side with his old military squadmate, Cactus.
The tale really kicks into action when Naadirah goes missing. She had told Leo the night before her disappearance that there was someone she needed to tell him about, but that she definitely didn’t want to leave him. He communicates mostly by writing notes, but Leo now has to learn to embrace the technology around him as well as putting his old school skills into action, on his quest to find his lost love.
In doing so he gets into a scuffle with a couple of ‘Limey’s’ at the club, who had been hitting on Naadirah the night before. It is around this point that I began thinking, ‘this film is a bit ridiculous’. The acting was not great by the supporting cast, in particular, the Russians and the Brits, who made it feel like an episode of Gotham with their cartoonish over-enthusiasm. That paired with the look of the future being one of a massacre at a Flock of Seagulls gig, I did cringe quite a bit, but hey in 2052 I’ll be 73 years old, perhaps I’m just showing my future old fuddy-duddy ways, “Oh the youth of today” etc etc.
But then it changed. I am most definitely biased when it comes to Paul Rudd I won’t deny it but he is a truly great actor. I have followed his movies for over 20 years, his independent films such as Diggers and Prince Avalanche are among my top ten favourite films, but of course, comedies are what he’s most known for—he is a genuinely funny guy. He brings that improvised humour to this role too but it’s a credit to his acting skill that here he makes it somewhat unnerving. He is outrageous, sarcastic, arrogant and quite frankly a prick asking for a kick in (and you sense that he really wants someone to just do this), but you still can’t help but love him, and root for him. Throughout this dark tale he repeatedly shows his soft side as a devoted father to his little girl Josie, who like Leo does not speak. It is also worth mentioning that he sports the most impressive moustache throughout this film.
But it is his bromance with Duck that fascinated me and kept me engrossed. Duck, who looks (and acts) hilariously like a cross between Owen Wilson and Andy Warhol, begins you think, as a sweet guy – the calm to Cactus’ storm. But I was very wrong. Theroux plays this creepy and sinister role perfectly. At points I found myself feeling quite nauseated by his behaviour despite the subtlety of the offending scenes. Kudos to Theroux for taking on this deplorable character and being able to concurrently appear both pathetic and menacing.
Cactus is a bully. He treats Duck with contempt most of the time, albeit often for good reason. Their relationship is, despite them just being friends, one of domestic violence and mental abuse. They are both, in their own ways, psychopaths, but with a great deal of love for each other. They even call each other babe. And despite their abhorrent behaviours that they’re both disgusted by, they also have empathy for each other. Cactus is unable to stay mad at Duck for long, though the reason for his forgiveness is to keep him under his control and to have a real friend in a world where everyone looks out for themselves. Their lives are seedy, spent with the criminal underbelly of Berlin, in The Parlour, a whorehouse, and it’s the ladies that work there that look after Josie most of the time. So maybe Cactus isn’t such a great Dad after all. And Duck isn’t such a great friend either. Cactus definitely should have been nicer to him.
As the threads of the story of Leo and Cactus began to intertwine, with Leo unintentionally scuppering every chance Cactus had to make that step closer to leaving Berlin, I really hoped that these two would somehow join forces and save the day together. Yeah, my optimism was not rewarded at all. This film was far more brutal and disturbing than I thought it would be and has left me with quite a sour taste. That’s not a bad thing I should add, it is a testament to any movie these days that leaves an impression on me. Being a massive Twin Peaks fan it takes a lot to stir the emotions in a similar way David Lynch & Mark Frost’s show does.
Talking of Twin Peaks, there were a couple of moments in Mute that I thought had to be a tip of the hat by Duncan Jones, whose father notoriously played Phillip Jeffries in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Leo left small blue flowers for Naadirah, not roses admittedly but enough to make me think about them being artificial or genetically modified, because of course vivid blue flowers do not grow naturally. There is also a scene that I cannot talk about without giving away the ending, but needless to say it is without a shadow of a doubt a throwback to Laura Palmer. When you see it you will know.
I have to mention a very memorable performance by Dominic Monaghan, who played Oswald, who Leo tracked down whilst on the hunt for Naadirah. He answers the door in full Geisha outfit and whip, it appears he has been disturbed mid sexy time with two robots. He may have only been on screen a couple of minutes but it was one of the shining moments of the movie. His South African accent alone made me chuckle, in all the right ways. In fact, thinking about it, I’m not sure we came across any actual Germans in Berlin, except Leo but he doesn’t speak. If Duncan Jones’ future world is realised then the borders are very much open in Europe in 2052. Was that a political statement by Jones? The fact that the capital city of Germany could be so multicultural a little over 100 years after World War 2?
There was also a moment that made me actually say ‘Yay!’ out loud as little Josie watches one of my favourite TV shows from my childhood, The Trap Door. A cartoon that was on in the mid-late ’80s in the UK. I can only assume that Duncan Jones loved it as much as me to include it in his movie.
At the end of the movie I was left with some sense of relief. It is definitely not a comfortable watch but we are left feeling hopeful and this is clearly a deeply personal film for Jones. It is dedicated, ‘In memory of those who became parents’. Jones lost both his father and his childhood nanny, Marion Skene in the last 2 years. The ending of the film certainly pays respects to her with a message that you don’t have to be related by blood to be a great parent. The most thought-provoking moment comes right at the end as we recognise that Leo’s mother left his medical fate in the hands of God, but it is an evil man who ‘played god’ that actually ‘fixes’ him.
Is this film as incredible as I had hoped? Probably not. In many ways, it felt like an extra-long episode of Black Mirror, but without quite the same level of poignancy. And whilst it looked visually spectacular the story wouldn’t have transferred well onto the big screen, Netflix is its perfect home.
I checked out some reviews post watch and the critics have on the whole panned it, which I feel is a tad unfair. It is perhaps unfortunate that it was released after Blade Runner 2049 as it has a lot to live up to and it doesn’t come close in that sense. But the performances from all of the main actors were top dollar, each of them playing characters we haven’t really seen them play before. Skarsgard had a difficult job of having to show all his emotion through facial expression and body language alone as voicing them was not an option. I think he pulled it off without appearing too over the top. Rudd brings some welcome dark humour and outlandishness and Theroux made me squirm, which is exactly what he was intended to do. So, all in all, I would recommend this film to others, it won’t blow you away but it will keep you quiet for a few hours.