Anthony Waller’s “Mute Witness,” a small, witty, unpretentious thriller, is a seductive piece of real filmmaking ripe with tension that should keep audiences hyperventilating to the last reel. Shot on location, well-crafted suspenser concerns three American youngsters making a movie in Moscow who inadvertently get entwined with the Russian underworld. Pic was presented as a midnight special at Sundance, but with a shrewd campaign, Sony release can attract a broader constituency than the latenight crowd.
Using the classic format of a disabled woman in peril, writer and director Waller gracefully borrows elements from such thrillers as “Wait Until Dark,” as well as f/x pix, placing his tale on a movie studio set with outstanding special effects playing a crucial role in the plot.
The heroine, Billy (Mary Sudina), is an attractive, highly skilled special effects makeup artist working on a low-budget thriller that is directed by Andy (Evan Richards), b.f. of her sister Karen (Fay Ripley). Overly protective of Billy, Karen worries about her because she’s mute — she can hear but can’t speak.
One night, leaving the studio, Billy realizes she forgot a mask that needs more work. Going back to retrieve it, she unwittingly stumbles onto a snuff movie, which is secretly being shot on the same location. Her colleagues, who work on both movies, claim the murder never happened. As the only witness, Billy’s task is to prove her competence — and save her life.
What seems at first a simple little thriller progressively spirals in unexpected directions, as Billy and her friends are drawn deeper into a labyrinth involving the Russian Mafia.
Neophyte helmer has obviously watched many Hitchcock movies, for he knows how important a good MacGuffin is to a thriller’s machinery. Waller manipulates the plot with twists and turns based on such icons as a lost key, assuring that Billy is locked inside the studio with her chasers in hot pursuit. There’s also a missing computer disk containing secret info about the Mafia, adding another layer to the escapade.
Setting “Mute Witness” in the new Russia proves to be a cunning strategy, for it heightens the feeling of danger, isolation and helplessness of Americans in alien territory with no command of the local tongue. It also makes the movie more topical, showing how modern Russia “follows” the Western world, even in the area of organized crime. Most of the film takes place within the controlled environment of a dilapidated movie set (in the noted Mosfilm studio), where Waller achieves a superlative mise en scene. Helmer shows a slippery, ominous visual sense and a good nose for macabre humor, as in a cellar scene where Billy faces a dead victim in a plastic bag. An outdoor chase scene, though not particularly well executed, provides viewers with a long shot of the Kremlin.
While Richards is aptly obnoxious and Ripley routine in pic’s obvious and thankless roles, central performance by Russian actress Sudina is thoughtful and appealing. The presenceof chameleon thesp Alec Guinness, hardly recognizable here, lends added cachet.
Tech credits in what appears to be a small-budgeter are proficient, with special kudos to Egon Werdin’s edgy lensing and Peter Adam’s tricky but precise editing.
Waller is not beyond using visual cliches, like swinging doors, locked windows, alley cats and glinting flashlights in dark buildings. Thriller can also be faulted for being entirely plot-driven, neglecting to develop intriguing characterizations. Nonetheless, pic’s suspense is so chilling, its narrative so disciplined and its style so pleasurable, they jointly triumph over the other deficiencies.