The ending of Mute explained

Mute, writer-director Duncan Jones' addition to our ongoing cyberpunk renaissance, was released via Netflix in February 2018, hot on the heels of Ghost in the Shell, Blade Runner 2049, and Altered Carbon. All the trademarks of sci-fi dystopia are contained within its handsomely packaged universe: dark alleyways saturated in neon, hover cars, outfits befitting a New Wave pop sensation and, most importantly, a noir-infused conundrum desperately needing to be solved.

Leo Beiler (Alexander Skarsgård) is the man tasked with solving the mystery. The protagonist of Jones' long-awaited passion project silently roams the streets of Berlin, circa 2058, searching for his missing girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). Though events unravel in a fairly straightforward way, Mute is full of interconnected characters and an abundance of individual motives — some good, some very, very bad — leaving a number of unanswered questions.

What was Cactus' link to Naadirah? What is Leo's relationship with Josie? Just who was sending those tantalizing text messages? How does Luba fit in, and why was he raising money for Naadirah? And, er, what was with Duck's pedophilia subplot? Read on for the ending of Mute explained.

Warning: Major Mute spoilers from here on out.

The tragic childhood accident leaving Leo unable to talk

Leo's investigation is made difficult because he can't speak, and the reason for his Leo's disability is quickly established. As a child, he was involved in a tragic accident, his throat slit by a motorboat's razor-sharp propeller.

He was pulled to safety, blood gushing from his neck, and rushed to the hospital. Due to serious tissue damage, medical staff warned his mother that he wouldn't be able to speak again unless they operated — but she was a follower of the Amish faith, whose followers often choose a simplistic life, refusing to adopt modern technology, including medical treatment. "God will heal Leo," his mother insisted, choosing faith over the doctor's advice.

Welcome to Berlin in 2058 — part of the Moon universe

Set 30 years after Leo's accident in 2058, Mute's futuristic Berlin is an immigration hub. The emphasis of this world is the social repercussions of conflict: the US is at war in Afghanistan, but a record number of troops are AWOL. Many of these soldiers choose the German capital as a place to stay on the down low — so much so that military officials search the streets for deserters.

Jones doesn't focus too much on new technology, in some ways keeping the setting very much in the background, leaving Leo's quiet quest at the forefront. However, there are some nice touches that give insight to this world, including smartphone implants, drastically improved healthcare, sex robots, and an exciting link to Jones' earlier work.

Jones called Mute the "spiritual sequel" to his 2009 debut, Moon. Set in 2035, that film tells the story of astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), who's mining for fuel at the Sarang Station during a solitary mission. Sam discovers the haunting truth that he is one of many clones, each given stints at working the shift. Although references to this universe are discreet, they add depth to this world.

In one scene, multiple clones appear on television screens in the background, claiming their right to be recognized as the original Sam Bell. The streets are littered with posters exclaiming: "Free the 156," suggesting a social movement to defend the rights of multiple Sam Bell clones. Lunar Industries — responsible for the mission — also own a gas station that Duck visits towards the end of Mute.

The sudden disappearance of Naadirah

Leo and Naadirah's romance is the catalyst for all that follows. The pair are deeply in love; Leo even deviates from his Amish principles by accepting Naadirah's gift of a cell phone to help make their communication easier. After smooching and taking selfies, Naadirah refers to Leo as "Da Stargo Tora," a Pashto phrase translating to "the black of my eyes, the thing that makes me feel beautiful."

The two lovers work in Foreign Dreams, a bizarre, futuristic strip club that replaces dancers of the flesh with aforementioned sex robots and acts as the melting pot for all of Mute's significant characters. Leo works behind the bar, while Naadirah works as a waitress. The club has a criminal undertone, thanks to owner Maksim's (Gilbert Owuor) involvement in illegal activity. One evening, Leo clashes with two visiting mobsters, Rob (Robert Kazinsky) and Stuart (Noel Clarke), who act inappropriately toward Naadirah.

After their altercation, security throw the pair into a taxi, but these aren't the people to mess with. For his troubles, Maksim ushers Leo to his office, warning him not to interfere with his business again. Later that evening, through tears of anguish, Naadirah begins to tell Leo of "someone else." Sensing her guilt, Leo writes a message to her on his notepad, making it clear nothing else matters, as long as they're together. They sleep, but when Leo wakes, Naadirah has disappeared.

The importance of Cactus

Of all the characters introduced in Dreams, "Cactus" Bill (Paul Rudd) is the most integral to the plot. The foul-mouthed and unhinged American surgeon is AWOL from the U.S. Army. He and his best buddy, fellow absconder Donald "Duck" Teddington (Justin Theroux), work for Maksim. They provide black market surgery for criminals injured in the line of illegal duty — presumably for a hefty remuneration, as Cactus earns enough to pay off corrupt officer Sgt. Robert Kloskowski (Daniel Fathers) and prevent his arrest.

Cactus is desperate to leave Berlin and return to the U.S., along with his daughter Jodie. Due to his AWOL status, he needs counterfeit identification papers to do so. The brutes at the bar, Rob and Stuart, are his way out, hired by Maksim to create fake IDs. But Leo is starting to get in the way. Following Naadirah's disappearance, Rob and Stuart return to Dreams. After goading Leo, they again get into a physical conflict. Leo loses his job and frustrates Cactus in the process.

Unhappy at the potential hiccup in his escape route, Cactus visits Leo at a cafe and warns him not to cause any more trouble.

Leo begins his investigation

As Leo begins his investigation, he tracks Naadirah's close friend and housemate Luba (Robert Sheehan) to a brothel but is quickly escorted by the bespectacled brute Gunther (played by professional wrestler Ulf Herman), one of Maksim's henchmen. Clearly, robot strip clubs aren't the only vice-satisfying industry Maksim is involved in.

Curiously, Leo receives a message from Naadirah's number, saying: "Miss me? I'm at Hacker's Hall" — the location for an illegal operation where all sorts of services are available, and the place where Rob and Stuart create IDs. When Leo arrives, Naadirah is nowhere to be seen, but Cactus is there with his daughter Josie, ironing out details for his planned paperwork. 

Though Leo doesn't find evidence at Hacker's Hall, he has a flash of inspiration. He remembers Naadirah used his notebook to take notes during a mysterious phone call. He sketches a page, and sure enough, it reveals the imprinted note — an address for Oswald (Dominic Monaghan).

Nicky Simek's sideline

Leo forces himself into Oswald's apartment, where he finds a bed with robots doing their best to imitate the kama sutra, and a collection of salacious polaroids. Leo grabs one showing a woman in a red dress and orange wig, signed by Naadirah. Unnerved by Leo's lack of speech, Oswald unwittingly reveals his working relationship with Nicky Simsek (Jannis Niewöhner), one of Maksim's cronies who is running his own secretive side operation.

Believing Leo to be after Nicky's cut, Oswald hands him piles of cash. Leo then tracks Nicky, who is with sex worker Tanya (Florence Kasumba) and Josie, whom Tanya is babysitting for Cactus. After Tanya and Josie leave, Leo deliberately makes a scene — he hands Nicky a written note with details of Nicky's side business before sprinkling the cash Oswald handed him onto the table.

In the background, heavies working for Maksim witness this, and it doesn't take long for word to get back to Nicky's boss. As revenge, Nicky is abducted, and Maksim hires Cactus and Duck to use their surgery skills to torture the man who betrayed him.

How Josie's parentage links everything together

Needing to find out why Luba is posing as Naadirah, Leo uses a service that delivers takeaway food via drone, FlyMeal, to cunningly track Naadirah's home address (Naadirah never invited Leo to her apartment, possibly wanting to avoid making Luba jealous). When Leo arrives, Luba is wearing the outfit from the polaroid. The pair interact before Luba stuns Leo with a taser-like device that appears to rejog Leo's memory, helping him piece everything together. Before meeting Leo, Naadirah had been in a relationship with Cactus, and the pair had a daughter, Josie.

Luba tells Leo he used prostitution to raise money for Naadirah. Naadirah needed a substantial amount to bribe the corrupt U.S. Army into arresting Cactus, freeing her to take custody of Josie. But Cactus knew her plan, piecing it together after Sgt. Kloskowski told him someone was willing to pay good money to see him removed from Berlin.

Making sense of the pedophilia subplot

In order to explain the ending of Mute, one particular subplot needs to be addressed: Duck is a pedophile. This is heavily hinted at from the off. He asks a prostitute to pretend she's 16, and makes inappropriate sexual comments about a group of teenagers at the bowling alley.

Cactus finds alarming evidence when he visits Duck's legitimate surgery. Aside from their black market operations, Duck fits robotic limbs for children. Chillingly, Cactus discovers a video stream from a hidden camera, showing a child in a state of undress. Cactus confronts Duck; he strikes him in the face, grabs him by the scruff of the neck, forces him to confess. When Duck eventually admits to the crime, Cactus promises a "world of pain" should Duck act on his desire, and Duck agrees to stop treating children.

Bizarrely, Cactus instantly forgives him. Granted, the pair have an interesting, toxic relationship (they even refer to each other as "babe"). Still, when Cactus hugs him, saying "I love you, brother," and vows to protect him, it defies logic. To make matters more puzzling, Mute then immediately switches to a lighthearted sequence, showing the two pals heading to the Mall and celebrating Cactus' finalized ID papers.

So what's the relevance of this subplot? It's an understatement to say such a sensitive issue needs to be handled delicately, but this is one area Mute falls painfully short. Ultimately, it appears to be a plot device to give the audience reason to despise Duck at the film's conclusion, and genuinely fear for Josie's safety. As well as highlighting the contradicting relationship between the pair — do they really love each other? Or are they united in their own immortality?

Leo's rampage and Cactus' downfall

While celebrating and saying their goodbyes at the Mall, Duck tells Cactus he's been sending Leo messages from Naadirah's number. He sent the message about Hacker's Hall, as well as a picture of Cactus and Josie. After Cactus punches him following an aggressive outburst towards a security guard, Duck sends one final message to Leo in revenge. He tells him Cactus will be at Dreams.

Now knowing Cactus fathered Naadirah's child and is likely responsible for her disappearance, Leo goes on a rampage. Armed with a hand-crafted wooden bat, he takes out security, defeats Gunther, and beats Maksim. While in Maksim's office, he steals Cactus' papers and finds his address. Leo travels to Cactus' house, where he releases Nicky from his earlier torture. 

Cactus soon follows, encouraging Leo to look beyond a locked gate. There, Leo makes a horrifying discovery: Naadirah has been murdered. Flashbacks show Cactus entering Leo's home, poisoning the pair and kidnapping Naadirah. Angered by her attempts to get him deported and his daughter taken away from her, he smothered her to death.

When Cactus confronts him, Leo appears to surrender. The pair fight, and when Cactus produces his knife, Leo uses his strength to turn it against him, plunging the blade deep into Cactus' throat and finally silencing a man known for incessant chatter.

Why Duck left Cactus to die

Duck's behavior toward Mute's conclusion is perplexing. By now, it's established he has a colourful and volatile relationship with Cactus. But there's no indication of the extent of hatred that leads to what comes next. Duck arrives as Cactus lies paralyzed and impaled in the basement. But rather than offer help, he reprimands Cactus for getting himself into this situation, closing the interaction by saying: "You should've been nicer to me, Bill."

As he climbs the stairs away from the basement, he turns a monitor to face Cactus. The monitor is linked to another room in the house, where Josie is waiting for her father. He carries Josie away, a signal of the most depraved revenge he can muster. Considering he'd go to such lengths to punish Cactus, it's hard to find a rational explanation as to why he then operates on Leo. His reasoning is to give him a voice so he can apologize for killing Cactus, but his earlier actions certainly don't indicate a loving relationship with his friend.

When Leo doesn't apologize, Duck takes him to a bridge with the intention of throwing him off.

Leo and Josie bond

Borderline comatose by this point, Leo springs to life just before Duck throws him into the water. He places his arms around Duck, squeezes, and plunges the pair into the water. As hinted at throughout Mute, Leo can hold his breath for an extended period of time. Duck drowns, while Leo visualizes his younger self, and then Naadirah, floating.

Leo surfaces to see Josie — who Duck left in the car — hanging over the edge. He finds his voice for the first time, telling her to get back, and when he returns to the bridge, the pair have a brief conversation, clearly having bonded. Leo promises to take her to her grandmother, whom he visited earlier.

The final scene shows Leo and Josie in a cafe. Leo notices Josie wearing a bracelet, made of the wooden charms he'd crafted for Naadirah. He taps a new charm on the table, rolls it towards her, and Josie compares it to those on her wrist. Leo smiles, and the credits roll.

Significantly, by Mute's conclusion, it's clear that Naadirah planned on living a new life with Leo and Josie. Though Leo never visited her home and was withheld from Naadirah's big secret, she'd told her mother of her love for him, and presumably spoken to Josie about Leo, too. There's hope the pair will continue their bond, extending Naadirah's legacy, while able to communicate in a novel way — speech.