I really believe Mute, Duncan Jones’ passion project sixteen years in the making, has a lot to offer. It tries (in some ways successfully) to deal with some heavy topics, but not without some very noticeable flaws in execution. Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux) are needlessly abhorrent characters, to the point of almost taking viewers out of the film. Nadiraah, Leo’s girlfriend and one of only two people in the entire film whom he engages with at length, is given just enough screentime to establish their relationship, thus motivating Leo’s pursuit of her kidnappers.
Perhaps the most confusing element of the film, though, comes from Leo’s backstory. The film begins with a depiction of the childhood accident that resulted in Leo’s vocal cords being severed by a boat propeller. Aside from the fact that providing a disability origin for a disabled character is pretty much never necessary, this one provides only more complications for the rest of the film. Leo and his family, you see, are Amish. Like, really Amish. After the accident, his parents take him to the hospital and promptly deny him access to surgery that could have rebuilt his vocal cords and saved him a lifetime of complications because of their beliefs. So… what were they doing on a motorized boat in the first place? So far as we can gather from Leo’s adult life, they don’t engage with technology or modern transportation in any way, and clearly not with the surgical implements standard in any hospital.
The only apparent reason this confused situation is included at all is for the sake of explaining why and how Leo became mute. For the rest of the film we see Leo practice as his family presumably practiced—not using cars or phones, turning away from the TV in a restaurant when he goes out to eat, holding down a job which apparently doesn’t require him to bother with technology in any way—until it becomes impractical in the story for him to do so. Yet even when he does begin to use a phone for the first time, it is the most basic model available, capable only of SMS messaging and voice calls (the most Amish-friendly his girlfriend could offer him). When he’s forced to drive a car later in the movie, he is clearly uncomfortable with what he’s doing.
The “necessity” for a disability origin story is evidenced by its innumerable occurrences in film and TV. Disabled characters whose identity is constituted around some other core than the initial, traumatic experience that resulted in their disability are depressingly rare (though I refer, once again, to The Shape of Water, which devoted exactly one brief exchange to how Eliza came to be mute before moving on entirely and never mentioning it again). Mute ultimately decides that a story about a disabled person is a story about the physical basis of disability, whether it’s relevant (or actually confuses the plot) or not.
From the time I was a child through my early twenties, the people who asked how I came to walk the way I do (or, more frequently and less eloquently, “What happened to you?”) fell into two categories: the others in my age group who didn’t actually care and were just curious, who were made visibly uncomfortable when their guess of my having broken my leg turned out to be wrong, and the adults, usually of religious background and usually well-meaning, who would tell me what an inspiration I was and how they would pray for me.
As I got older and started consciously reflecting on the way my life was different from others’—never mind struggling as a budding writer to articulate my experience as a woman with cerebral palsy in fiction without producing what is not-even-a-little affectionately referred to in the disabled community as “inspiration porn” (explained wonderfully by Meriah Nichols)—I started to think maybe both of these kinds of people didn’t see me as a whole individual person, but instead saw only the part of me that instilled emotion, positive or not.
I, on the other hand, can’t fathom a way of engaging with the world that is any different than I already do, and the thought of able-bodied people doing able-bodied things doesn’t strike me as particularly awe-inspiring or uplifting. I have my life, and they have theirs. Part of the reason it’s so hard to articulate in fiction is because my way of living is normal for me. The fact that it is abnormal for others is irrelevant, except when I have to fight for access to something. More fundamentally, though, neither I nor any other disabled person owes anyone an explanation for our existence. That Mute feels compelled to give us Leo’s origin story, irrespective of its relevance to the actual plot, not only confuses the film but validates the gaze that feels entitled to my body and my medical history. Far from engendering acceptance of disabled people, the story’s representation of Leo capitulates to the desire to interrogate different bodies.
Mute gives us Leo’s accident as backstory, and while it does also (attempt to) provide a background grasp of his religion along with his disability, it is the only backstory we get. This is problematic not just because it means all we know about Leo going in is that he’s Amish and disabled, but also because we never get more to connect with than that. Even providing an explanation for why the strictly Amish family is out on a motorized boat probably could have assuaged some of the palpable discontinuity felt whenever Leo has to engage with technology. The characters try to have depth, and are portrayed by their respective actors very well, but we never know much about them. The only thing that sets Leo’s lack of a meaningful backstory apart, though, is that what little we are given proves contradictory in the context of the rest of the film. Without it, we would have just had to accept his muteness and his Amishness as parts of his character.
While not nearly as outright confusing, the myriad subplots associated with the other characters are all disturbing in ways that don’t immediately lend depth or complexity to Leo’s journey. Maybe the most uncomfortable moments for me while researching this article came reading other critics who found the movie’s shining moments in Paul Rudd’s portrayal of Cactus Bill, whose entire subplot revolves around an act of family annihilation. Duck, meanwhile, is a raging pedophile barely capable of suppressing himself enough to function in his job as (*vomits*) a child orthotics technician. Jones himself explains the dynamic between Duck and Bill as supposedly a nod to Hawkeye and Trapper John from the original M*A*S*H film, but Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould should be offended at the comparison. Everything about the two of them is so uncomfortable as to be almost more than the film can take.
Nonetheless, unlike Leo’s useless origin story, the two men’s evil is essential to the plot, and they eventually get what’s coming to them–though not before Leo finds the Naadirah has been dead for the entire film, murdered by Cactus Bill and left for her boyfriend to find literally right next to an icebox. This is probably all part of Jones’ point, I’m sure, and if we remember that then it makes the movie a little easier to swallow.
If the point of Mute is to make the audience so uncomfortable they feel almost dirty and walk away thinking about it for that, then it’s a great success. Its violence is viscerally graphic from beginning to end, Cactus Bill’s mix of carelessness and paranoia (particularly regarding his daughter Josie, the only other character in the film besides Leo not to speak until the end) is disturbing to the point of making the audience squirm every time he comes on screen, Duck’s predatory nature makes us feel like Josie and any underage girl in the surrounding area are always at risk. All of this is a lot to handle for one movie, and certainly enough to contend with without wondering “what happened” to Leo.