“Mercury,” which has the distinction of being the first wordless steampunk zombie eco-thriller, is a movie that’s more exotic than your average international Indian release — but also, in a weird way, less exotic. (Like many American horror films, it’s got more style than sense.) It’s about five characters in their early twenties, all of whom, as children, suffered mercury poisoning at the hands of the Corporate Earth company — a fictionalized version of Unilever, whose improper disposal practices in the southern hill town of Kodaikanal resulted in death and disabilities that led, in 2001, to a major lawsuit. In “Mercury,” the five characters — four dudes (Anish Padmanabhan, Deepak Paramesh, Sananth Reddy, and Shashank Purushotham) and a young woman (Remya Nambeeshan) — are deaf-mutes who make avid use of what you’d call sign language, though it isn’t all that signed. Most of it is consists of simple and rather frantic hand gestures, as if people who didn’t know sign language were trying to communicate anyway.
“Mercury” is being marketed as a “silent film,” but actually, it’s not silent at all. The soundtrack is thick with realistic noise, and Santhosh Narayanan’s musical score is richly atmospheric; this is simply a sound film in which no one talks. The opening half hour, which features a party with thumping Indian heavy metal and dance music, is more than a little trying, since the film has no subtitles, and we have to work to figure out what the characters are saying to each other.
But then they hop into a car, and one grisly accident and mysterious vanished corpse later, they wind up at the abandoned Corporate Earth factory, where that body turns up as some sort of bizarre undead human monster who is also a victim of mercury poisoning. He’s played, with a face covered in bloody makeup, by the noted choreographer, actor, and director Prabhu Deva, who resembles Laurence Olivier in the 1965 film version of “Othello” and gives what may be the world’s first zombie performance that looks as though it belongs in a ballet.
Is the character, in fact, a zombie? At times, it struck me that way, but I have no real idea. Karthik Subbaraj, the writer-director of “Mercury,” works in an arbitrary hallucinatory style that seems, at moments, like dream logic and at others like he forgot to shoot pages of his script. The movie is a mess, yet once the thriller plot kicks in, you do start to absorb it as a “silent” film, tuning into the visual atmosphere of stalker fear and rusty chemical entropy.
The factory, it turns out, is one of the most spectacularly sprawling and corroded industrial ruins you’ve ever seen: a fantastic junk heap of dilapidated metal, of beakers and knobby consoles and rotting faucets and piles of crumbling spare parts. It’s a setting presented to the audience in the decay-as-beauty spirit of the grandly wrecked Hué combat theater in “Full Metal Jacket,” and with its pewter trashiness dotted with shiny flecks of mercury, it does look toxic enough to kill you. Bathed, at times, in a sick glow of green phosphorescence, that set tells its own story: of murder by neglect. As the characters are attacked, first one then another, by Deva’s graceful zombie demon martyr (whatever he is), the film communicates its message between the lines of the action. The message is: They may be fighting for their lives, but they’re already in hell.