In more ways than one, Mute, which comes out on Netflix today, is something of a spiritual sequel to director Duncan Jones’s first film, 2009’s Moon. In that movie, an astronaut named Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is nearing the end of a three-year contract on the moon, where he’s been tasked with mining for a gas that can help power earth. He’s all alone up there, a veritable Major Tom (Jones is the son of David Bowie), comforted only by video messages from his wife and daughter, the calming voice of his robot, Gerty, and the prospect of home, glowing a magnificent blue against the voracious blackness of space. When, through a series of events, Bell learns he’s one of many clones of the original Sam Bell, that his memories of his loved ones are implants and that the corporation he’s working for doesn’t actually plan on sending him home, he conspires, along with another Sam Bell, to find a way back to earth. The final shot shows him hurtling through space, heading towards home, to a cacophony of future news reports suggesting he is unwelcome.
Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), the protagonist of Mute, is not a clone, though he is also, quite literally, from another planet. Set in a generically futuristic Berlin, with flying cars and neon lights, holograms and drones, Leo is sort of the Germanic version of Amish, a luddite who willfully refuses the advents of modern technology. He’s also (shocker!) mute, from a childhood boating accident—a disability that’s accentuated in a world where voice activation is the key to many a-device. When his blue-haired girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh, who is the spitting image of “manic pixie dream girl”), goes missing, his search for her, through a convoluted underworld populated with Russian mobsters, hookers, robot hookers, cross-dressing geisha pimps and AWOL American soldiers-cum-rogue surgeons, becomes the primary driver of the movie.
And that’s where the wheels start coming off. Jones introduces a side plot, involving a pair of chummy ex-U.S. Army medics, Duck (Justin Theroux) and “Cactus” Bill (Paul Rudd), who work as mercenary surgeons/torturers for the Russian mob. (Despite this being the future, and Berlin, the Russian mob inexplicably persists in its same old villainous ways.) For more than half the movie, you don’t really know what they’re doing there—except for the fact that Bill seems to have taken a keen interest in Leo’s search. With their irreverent Tarantino-esque repartee, the two don’t seem to belong in the same movie as the ever-sensitive Leo. Although maybe that’s the point.
By the time the two stories coalesce, in the third act, the viewer’s been dragged through such an excess of plot and showy futuristic eccentricities, that he’s liable to feel a kind of resentment. One sequence of events that follows is risibly ludicrous. Bill confronts Duck for spying on the children at his surgical clinic while they undress; things get physical; Bill threatens to kill Duck if he doesn’t stop. Then the two go to the mall. This unnecessary plot point—the fact that Duck is a pedophile—is necessary to build tension for the movie’s contrived final act, and its forced, if affecting, dénouement.
Jones took a risk in casting Rudd against type, but the choice has paid off. With a handlebar mustache and a proclivity for floral-print shirts, his “Cactus” Bill is an offbeat caricature of the classic American alpha male: insolent, loud-mouthed, violent, volatile and totally disrespectful of the country in which he’s a visitor. He’s a loose-canon. But unlike more protean actors of his generation, Paul Rudd is always kind of Paul Rudd—the everyman, the goof, the sympathetic romantic lead. If at first his brashness feels off, it eventually becomes convincing. When he strikes fear into the eyes of Duck or an unlucky security guard, one can’t help but feel surprised—not only by Rudd, but by the character he’s lulled you into thinking is another dick-ish, if ultimately likable version of characters he’s played in the past. In this way, he serves as a fitting foil to Skarsgård’s quietly powerful Leo. (As evidenced in Big Little Lies, and to a lesser extent, True Blood, few actors have a greater capacity to convey, through sheer physicality, such a startling range of tenderness and brutality.)
It’s Rudd’s Bill, too, that ends up being the film’s most indelible character. Like Sam Bell, in Moon, who has a funny little cameo in Mute, everything he does is in order to get home with his daughter, Josie—to America, that is. Despite his wrongdoings, his latent evilness, Rudd makes you feel for him. Jones has made a messy, convoluted film. But whether it be clones, or mute luddites, or villainous Army medics, he’s shown a knack for limning the humanity of those society may perceive as less than.