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Alexander Skarsgard is an Amish Detective in the New Netflix Film ‘Mute’

Mute asks Alexander Skarsgard to do something different. He’s been a vampire heartthrob, and starred in the latest version of Tarzan, but the new film from director Duncan Jones (Moon, Warcraft) is even more physical. In this thriller tinged with science fiction, Skarsgard plays an Amish man who cannot speak. That puts unique demands on the actor, which he meets with great skill and charisma.

The film opens with a young Leo nearly dying in a boating accident which alters the course of his life. Leo’s throat is cut by the propellor of a boat piloted by young vacationers, and his Amish mother decides not to put him through the surgery that might restore his voice. So Leo grows up mute and, by typical standards, withdrawn.

While he finds a home in Berlin, and works as a bartender at an upscale club, Leo’s inability to speak is a constant reminder of his past. He swims long laps and drinks giant glasses of water to master the element that nearly destroyed him. He avoids technology, pouring himself into hand-made arts like illustration and woodcarving. He won’t even sit facing a TV if he can help it. When his girlfriend Naadirah, played by Seyneb Saleh, gives him a cell phone, his first, so they can stay in touch, he accepts it politely, but with expressions that let us know he’ll never use it if he can avoid it.

It’s easy to think of a quiet actor simply moving through scenes, but Mute asks for much more than that. Skarsgard’s character is tied to everything in this movie; he’s right at the center. The role needs him to be truly connected to the people around him, whether they’re gangsters or displaced Americans, or Naadirah, and Skarsgard’s performance creates a person who does have a place amidst the noise of the life around him. When Naadirah goes missing, his displaced status goes into sharp relief – it’s not easy to find a missing person when you can’t easily ask questions.

Though some of Leo’s basic interactions with the rest of Berlin are written – he keeps a pad handy to express the most immediate ideas – Skarsgard uses his eyes to invite us in to the character. Film is all about the gaze to begin with, and without dialogue to fall back on Skarsgard develops his gaze as a primary language. One look can tell us everything we need in a scene.

[Credit: Netflix]

Duncan Jones’s film is visually connected to Blade Runner. While the two movies are set in very different places, this film’s vision of Berlin is, like Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles, a maze of concrete with splashes of neon light and high-tech media.

The ultimate effect is that everyone seems to be out for themselves; people are just trying to get by. The silent Leo is already set apart from everyone else, which in this environment seems to make him just like all the other people in the city. But where they’re looking at little more than what’s right in front of them, Leo seems to take in more of the city as a whole. He knows more than most people because he has to see more to make his own way.

The script by Duncan Jones and Michael Robert Johnson gives Skarsgard plenty material to work with, and doesn’t need the voice-over that some dystopian sci-films use to explain their world. Mute takes a different approach, using Leo’s physical limitations to create an understanding of what it’s like to live in an overwhelming world like this one. When we see his retreat, a garage workshop full of hand-carved wood, it shows us just how far Leo is from everyone else, and Skarsgard’s performance makes the character feel like he’s in his own proper space, at last.

None of which means that Leo is a pacifist. His background may have left the guy with a few unresolved issues, and he meets threats with an explosion of violence. Skarsgard can bring raw physical intensity to the role when called upon, though he often minimizes his 6’4” frame in a way that emphasizes the more, ahem, quiet side of Leo’s personality. The reserved nature of the role makes moments of violence even more surprising, as when he vaults over a bar to confront a sexually aggressive customer. But he’s not superhuman; Leo bruises like anyone else, and even his intimidating size can’t solve his problems.

The film also makes Leo seem pretty great by creating other primary characters who aren’t nearly as pure as he is. Cactus and Duck, a pair of American surgeons played by Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux, move through the world like rogues. We quickly realize that whatever their good qualities may be, there’s some unsavory stuff going on that might impact Leo’s journey. Duncan Jones makes them into whole characters, and that makes the entire world of Mute feel more real, especially as Skarsgard interacts with them.

Mute is an unusual movie, but having Alexander Skarsgard at the center makes it approachable. This version of Berlin isn’t familiar, but it is a place we want to explore. Watching Skarsgard do so as Leo, especially with the character’s specific challenges, makes the film’s freaky world a hell of an escape.