Michaeline: Good Villains, Writing Craft and Mute

Love padlocks on a bridge in Berlin. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD: Watch Mute on Netflix first if you are especially sensitive.

I just finished watching Mute, a near-future thriller that came out on Netflix this month. I found it a riveting story, full of nuances and great writing craft.

The villains are particularly worthy of study. In our writing class at McDaniels, Jennifer Crusie told us how important it is that the antagonist be as interesting and exciting as the protagonist – if not more so. (And here is a blog post from Argh Ink about it.) She also taught us that the villain is the hero of his or her own story, and that we should really like our villains.

If we create a villain that is devoid of all good things, we create a cardboard character with no real life. And on the flip side, our heroes should have flaws. It makes them more believable, and it allows us to pity them, or empathize with them.

In Mute, two of the very many bad guys are bantering army doctors who fix up (or take apart) people for an underworld businessman. Director and co-writer Duncan Jones said he had the duo (Paul Rudd as Cactus Bill and Justin Theroux as Duck) watch the movie MASH for inspiration (Geek Tyrant interview). These two guys are “the smartest guys in the room” and have the kind of great chemistry you need to pull off great banter. These guys are definitely the heroes of their own stories.

But the characters are selfish, and they have terrible flaws. Cactus Bill is psychotic and has control issues and a lot of anger. He loves his daughter very much, but not enough to keep her in a stable environment. One of his goals in the movie is to get her to safety, but his flaws mean he can’t be the hero who does. Duck is even worse. He’s a gifted doctor with a great manner who fits kids with artificial limbs that give them their lives back. But he’s also a pedophile. We, the audience, begin the film liking him . . . but that like soon turns to a disgust, tempered with a sadness for the kind of man he can never be but attempts to portray.

Jones’ treatment of Duck Teddington is very skilled. It reminds me a bit of Lolita, where I loathed Humbert Humbert, but also felt I understood him deeply.

The ending is not happy. And, I must warn you – readers of a blog full of romance writers – that the love story is not the sort of thing that will be approved by the Romance Writers of America. It’s a great love story, but tragic with no happy ending to it. The bigger story, though, does see justice served. The bad guys get what’s coming to them, and become mute in the end.

The good guy is equally nuanced. Good writers will want to pay attention to what Jones does with Leo, a young man who suffered an accident in his youth that left him without speech. I read in this Collider interview  that writing a character without dialog started as a kind of dare. Writing a character who doesn’t speak could be a good story exercise for bringing in more body language, facial expressions, concrete actions (giving the girl hand-carved beads to express love without words, for example) and other non-verbal methods of communicating without resorting to outright exposition.

I also thought the motif-work was very good in this movie: the muteness; the conquering-of-water themes for the hero; the different kinds of parenting in the movie. The parenting really is a heartbreaker; as a parent myself, I know none of us ever get it exactly right. We all try our best, but we are blinded by our religions, our patterns of thought, our need to control everything. We do it for the best of reasons, because we hope for the best for our children. But we are all just blunderers. It’s really a miracle if anyone grows up sane and stable.

One thing I’d like to discuss in the comments: how do you think things like Netflix exclusives parallel the self-publishing world? On the one hand, movies take a LOT of money. Sure, you can shoot a video in your apartment over the weekend for the price of a data-storage device (if you already have the stuff). (David Bowie’s “Love is Lost” Hello Steve Reich mix, 4:12.) But on the other hand, this is as different from a studio release as a self-published book is from a traditionally published one.


(The well-rounded villain is kind of a theme for me. I’ve written previously about Halloween villains here, and a villain in love here.)

4 thoughts on “Michaeline: Good Villains, Writing Craft and Mute

  1. Putting “Mute” into my Netflix queue. Also remembering that Jenny had us watch “Hush,” the no-dialogue episode of Buffy. Your post gives me a better understanding of why she did that. Planning to re-watch.

    • I know not everyone shares my love for Warm Bodies, the zombie homage to Romeo & Juliet, but I think it deals with no-dialogue communication brilliantly. For the first (maybe) one-third of the film, R, the zombie hero, can’t speak to the heroine, Julie, at all, though his internal monologue, which he shares with the viewer, is clever, funny, and very dark. What do you say to a girl you really like if you know all about her because you devoured her boyfriend’s brains??

    • Sorry, I’m so late in replying. Did you get a chance to watch the movie? I don’t remember watching any Buffy; that might have come after the first year. I’ll have to check and see if I can find it in the video store.

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