Film Reviews

Netflix Review: The Story Behind the Making of Mute is Far More Interesting Than the Actual Movie

The story behind the making of so many classic movies is one of overcoming overwhelming odds. It’s about unknown and unproven talent refusing to give up and finally finding someone willing to take a chance on them. It’s the story of being a visionary in a reactionary business or being more interested in actually making a movie in an industry more concerned with theme park attractions and ancillary profits. Or sometimes it just comes down to somehow finding your way to creating a transcendent work of cinema out of an absolutely chaotic production.

Duncan Jones’ Mute…is not one of those stories.

Well, actually, it kind of is. The tale of woe behind the film is one of perseverance, heartbreak, and redemption. The actual film itself, though, is far from a classic. In fact, it’s just not very good, yet another example of what happens when Netflix sets out to release more Original movies in a single year than every major studio will combined. See, sometimes Hollywood is right. Not every film trapped in the bottomless hole of development hell needs or deserves to be rescued. But Netflix has a quota to hit and increasingly lax standards to uphold. So, here we are with Mute, a movie which mostly gets by on being vaguely watchable and earns points for at least being more competently put together than The Cloverfield Paradox. Duncan Jones is capable of better than this, though.

A spiritual sequel to Jones’ first feature Moon, Mute takes place in 2050 Berlin, which looks like an updated, more multicultural, slightly brighter rendering of Blade Runner’s future Los Angeles. The design work is eye-catching, but also a bit familiar in a sci-fi landscape freshly flooded with Blade Runner imitators like Ghost in the Shell, Altered Carbon, and, of course, Blade Runner: 2049. Jones picked Berlin because he grew up there in the 70s and because he felt it represented a modern melting pot which could be projected into a future cityscape where all manner of people have to simply learn how to get along. The latter intention shows itself in the diverse casting (e.g., Americans, Brits, Germans, Africans, Asians) but fails to actually pay off thematically. There’s an interesting story to be told about a future city overflowing with people of so many different ethnicities and worldviews; Mute isn’t that movie, though.

The multiculturalism is mere background noise to the main plot, which revolves around a mute bartender’s (Alexander Skarsgard’s Leo) search of the Berlin underworld for his suddenly disappeared girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). This is a perfectly reliable set-up for various run-ins with pimps, sex workers, corrupt doctors, nightclub owners, and…Dominic Monaghan in full kabuki makeup, for some reason. Yet Mute can’t quite follow through on this or even settle on a fully coherent narrative.

Duncan Jones gave himself a huge challenge by making the lead character mute, but even after nearly two decades of fine-tuning the script his solution, apparently, is to take this movie which should be about Leo’s ongoing struggles and eye-opening experiences and make it just as equally about the plight of two smart-ass doctors working as torturers-for-hire for some seriously seedy people. This means every time the film feels like it’s getting somewhere interesting with Leo we have to sit through another seemingly pointless sequence of Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux doing their best impressions of noticeably more sinister versions of M*A*S*H*’s Hawkeye and Trapper.

The casting allows both to play against type, which isn’t always a good thing. Paul Rudd is wholly unconvincing as the hotheaded heavy, and Theroux’s performance feels oddly upstaged by his own wig, although there is a creepiness underneath his subdued line readings which pays dividends in the second half of the film.

The problem is the two parts of the film feel too disconnected. Leo and the doctors (sidebar: good name for a band?) interact more like passing ships in the night than truly interconnected characters in the same movie. When they finally come together, in the end, it happens in the most predictable fashion possible, meaning the payoff to Jones’ choice to make this a split-narrative frustrates more than it satisfies.

However, you can understand why Jones keeps cutting to Rudd and Theroux. It’s mostly because he has no idea what to do with Leo, who is portrayed here with an almost Marty McFly-esque anger trigger where whenever someone says something bad about Naadirah he launches into extreme, violent rage. So, really, a lot of the movie is just Leo randomly attacking people and then having a mid-movie freakout where he wonders if perhaps, given his rage, he killed Naadirah and blacked it out, which is a story idea that disappears as quickly as it arrives.

Skarsgard, always an enjoyable, but a limited actor, deploys various pained facial expressions to communicate Leo’s steadfast determination and occasional frustration. His constant-hunched stance makes his more sure-footed physical assaults on those who dare impugn his girlfriend’s name extra effective. Thus, Skarsgard’s physicality lends Leo an intriguing quality, but even by the end of the film he’s just not much of a character.

Such a shame.

Jones devoted 16 years of his life to getting this movie made, reduced to exploring the possibility of making it as a graphic novel until Netflix came along. In the time since he finished Mute‘s first draft in 2003, he directed three other movies (Moon, Source Code, Warcraft), became a husband, supported his wife through her fight with breast cancer, supported his famous father (David Bowie) and his ultimate losing battle to cancer, lost the woman who raised him, and became a father to two young children. As such, Mute morphed over the years into an incredibly personal project for Jones. It’s set in the town he grew up in. The missing person plot now dovetails into ruminations on fatherhood and loss. The final frame is used to dedicate the film to the memory of Jones’ dead dad and the woman he considered to be his mother.

Thus, one can’t really fault Jones’ passion, and unlike a theatrical experience, all you’re giving up by watching Mute on Netflix is a couple hours of your life. There are certainly far worse Netflix Originals begging for your time. However, a new, original sci-fi movie from the man who directed Moon and Source Code sounds like such a winning formula. That’s what makes Mute’s failure all the more disappointing.


Another disappointing Netflix Original which tries to be two movies at once even though neither one of those movies is all that interesting. The derivative, but intriguing visuals at least adds some appeal, and Jones tosses in several camera movements which are objectively amazing. Too bad more effort couldn’t have been spent on getting the story and characters right.



  1. One example of how Mute might have been improved by traditional studio notes: Leo was raised Amish, which is reflected in the conservative clothes he wears and his ongoing decision against having surgery to repair the vocal cords that were damaged in a childhood accident. But other than the built-in “why he can’t talk even though future science could maybe heal him” explanation this part of his background is largely pointless. The notion of him actively choosing to live a certain way or the idea of him maybe being constitutionally unprepared for what he sees in his journey never truly pays off. A studio note would have forced Jones to rethink and re-justify that character decision or remove it entirely. Instead, it remains intact and adds nothing to the movie other than the peculiar image of a man in a tweed suit patrolling the Berlin nightlife.
  2. Positive note pointed out to me on Twitter: Clint Mansell’s musical score for this film is fantastic.
  3. Mute was actually shot in Berlin, specifically at the ICC, Brandenburg Gate, and Babelsberg Studio, which is where Metropolis and Nosferatu were filmed.
  4. SPOILER ALERT: Jones almost literally fridges Naadirah in the end. How did that still seem like a good idea to him even after 16 years of developing the script?


  1. Love Berlin. Glad a film had the balls to use the location over the usual hotspots. Too bad I fell asleep half way through this movie (and I never fall asleep during a movie). Good cast too. Makes you wander how they all signed up. I suppose it was the chance to play against type like you say.

    1. The chance to play against type certainly factored in. Also, even though his star diminished after Warcraft Duncan Jones probably still carried enough respect thanks to Moon and Source Code to excite some actors. Beyond that, the chance to film not only in Berlin but in some truly historic areas of the city, particularly at the same studio which once housed all-time classics like Metropolis and Nosferatu, must have seemed extra appealing. There’s also the extra cool factor of going into business with a Netflix production and trusting not only will you be free to just make your movie you’ll also be somewhat free to fail. If the movie isn’t well-received, oh, well. At least you made a movie you know millions of people around the world will have easy access to, and since there are no objective measures verifying who did and did not watch you can simply shake off the bad reviews and move on to other things, perhaps even working with Netflix again.

      1. Agree with all but the last point. Netflix must keep stats on what people watch. I bet a shed load of people watched this die film in the same way people used to watch mediocre films because they were at home, skint or had nothing to do. And with those figures Netflix can afford to ignore reviewers. Otherwise they would certainly be paying attention to the critics to make sure they dont scare off their subscribers.

      2. Oh, you misunderstand me. When it comes to the movies, the divide between critics and Netflix is ever-growing, but other than Ted Sarandos’ not-so-secret ambition to someday win a bunch of Oscars outside of the Documentary category Netflix has been pretty upfront about not giving a shit about critics. They make movies geared toward impulse-viewing where critical opinion is irrelevant. All of that is true.

        But I wasn’t talking about it from Netflix’s point of view. I was speaking more toward an actor, director, or producer’s point of view. Based on the various interviews I’ve heard over the years, Netflix’s collaborators are very rarely ever let in on the viewing metrics. It’s more of a thumbs up/thumbs down situation. Either Netflix is pleased with how the movie performed according to their internal metrics or they’re not, and to be freed from the constraints of having to care about reviews or sweat it out over box office or ratings has to hold a certain appeal to creatives.

        There are these new, crazy cats on the scene. They’ll throw money at you. Leave you to do your thing, and then make your movie available to millions around the world. Maybe sometime later they’ll call you up and throw more money at you to keep working together on things. You don’t know why exactly because they won’t tell you how many people actually watched your movie, but, hey, who cares. You’re making movies people will actually watch.

      3. I think its fine. I watched Radius last night and thought to myself, this i good but it never would have been made other than via Netflix or Amazon. Cinema would shun it and TV wouldn’t take the risk or budget (minimal budget) for it.

      4. Radius and The Ritual are good examples of the “its fine” nature of Netflix making or distributing movies no one else would. Mute is a good example of Netflix not actually caring that much if the movies are good or not. It’s a numbers game for them, and it’s staggering. Like I said in the piece, they are making/releasing more movies this year than all the other studios combined, and in that historically unprecedented environment it’s inevitable that a lot of what they’re going to put out is going to either flat out suck or be exactly the low risk, low reward viewing options where you didn’t hate it, didn’t love it, but can’t be too mad because it’s not like you paid anything or had to leave your home to see it.

      5. I like that we can view mediocre to damn right rubbish films. It makes the good fikms stand out and it does give the odd gem of a film a chance to flourish rather than stick in development hell. Omlette and egg shells etc. I still remember killer clowns from out of space. So bad its good.

      6. This is so sad, but Killer Clowns from Outer Space used to scare me so much as a kid that I’ve never researched it as an adult. It’s not because I am still scared of it, more that I kind of don’t want to lose that memory of it being this impossibly creepy movie about alien clowns turning people into cotton candy.

        More on topic: There’s nothing wrong with the so bad, it’s good entertainment. It’s just an entirely new look for Netflix, which as of just a year ago was making more prestige plays and trying harder to win Oscars.

      7. Ha ha ha ha ha ha….oohh ha ha ja ja ha…ahh..wipe tear from eye. You gotta review it KK. Its a corker. They turn humans into candy floss. Their spaceship is a circus tent. The only way to kill them is to burst their red nose. My mate chocked on his drink when i told him that. Oh and the heros were ice cream van men.. Scary stuff. If it makes you feel better there was some film about mirrors and a blindfolded blonde girl that scared me. Cant remember the name but found out years later that it is disney. So its all in a childs head. Back on topic dusk till dawn. My favourite film. Sequels came out. Load of tosh. Ok 3rd one was better but 2nd was such a cheap knock off. Point being before netflix video shops were marketing and tricjing us ro watch garbage. Roday netflix would buy it and show us. Also there is asome british show new to netflix with that girl in blink in doctor who. Carey mulligan i think. That is netflix money. Also black mirror. Netflix will write cheques where terrestrial tv stops short. Sometimes its a hit. Sometimes its toilet. Because of their pricing model it doesnt matter. No wonder the other medias hate netflix. Turned everything on its head. I wont give up my subscription beecause of mute when there is radius and punisher and jessica jones and schits creek. As soon as the choice volume dwindles then i will drop it.

      8. To stick with the video store analogy: what’s happening is Netflix used to be like a hip, boutique video store, and now it’s in the midst of becoming a national chain which can’t afford to so exclusively niche. So, a year ago they go to Sundance, Toronto and other film festivals and buy just about every major movie they can. This year they make Bright and Mute and buy The Cloverfield Paradox. It’s just a shift in strategy, on the film side at least. On the TV side, their Originals continue to be amazing. Just this weekend they dropped a docu-series about Flint, Michigan which is amazing (and deeply depressing).

        Moving away from the video store analogy, there’s also just the reality that the studios and other rights holders are pulling their product from Netflix in record numbers, leading to something like a 32% decrease in content on the service over the past 2 years. So, a huge part of the reason why they are pushing so aggressively into Originals is simply that they’re desperate to replace both the content which has already left and the content which will soon leave when other contracts expire and Disney launches its full-scale assault.

      9. “Oh and the heros were ice cream van men”

        What! Maybe I do need to bite the bullet and give this one a second look because I don’t remember that at all. I more remember a guy and a girl moving around a demonic circus tent and coming across the sight of the clowns sticking straws into cotton candy-shaped people and drinking their blood as if they were simply Capri-Sun boxes.

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