Mute special effects make-up artist Billy Hughes (Marina Zudina) is working on a rather entertaining looking slasher her sister Karen’s (Fay Ripley) boyfriend Andy (Evan Richards) directs in Russia. When she’s accidentally locked in the shooting location, Billy witnesses what some of the Russian crew get up to with the equipment when everyone else has gone home. It’s not pretty, for the guys are shooting a snuff film. Worse, they soon realize they aren’t alone in the building and start chasing Billy.
In a series of tense scenes, she manages to evade capture and ends up in the
arms of Karen and Evan who proceed to contact the police. The bad guys manage to
convince the police that they weren’t shooting a snuff film, though, so things
should come to an unpleasant end, yet still an end. Unfortunately for Billy,
these guys are only tiny cogs in a big prostitution, drug, and snuff film
racket, and their boss, only known as The Reaper (the upper body and head of
Alec Guinness in a tiny cameo) doesn’t like loose ends. Even less fortunate for
Billy, there’s also a McGuffin involved the bad guys think she possesses for no
reason. So soon, she has to fight for her life again.
In part, Anthony Waller’s Mute Witness is a huge, sloppy kiss on the
mouth of all the things the films of Alfred Hitchcock teach about making a
thriller. Indeed, the film is pretty much, and rather showily, adapting the
textbook the creepy genius never got around to writing. For the first half of
the film or so, until the film leaves the shooting location, things work out
rather excellently. There’s a tight focus on Billy, her plight, and the
inventive ways she uses to avoid her would-be killers, with intense editing and
camera work that does deserve an adjective like “breath-taking”, while Sudina
manages to believably project vulnerability and strength at the same time.
Alas, once that part of the film is over, things start to go off the rails
fast: instead of continuing to focus on Billy, the film spends too much time on
other characters, repeatedly breaking its own tension and rhythm and generally
acting as if Waller doesn’t quite know how to escalate properly. Instead
Mute Witness broadens in a deeply awkward manner and loses sight not
just of its main character but also of that imaginary rulebook on how to make a
thriller. Usually, this particular sausage isn’t made by stopping for comic
relief and such. Sure, Hitchcock often got away with this sort of thing, but
unlike Waller, Hitchcock unerringly knew how to turn seeming digressions
into elementary parts of the plots of his films.
Waller just digresses. Thanks to these digressions, and the lack of
distracting excitement, it becomes increasingly difficult to accept the
implausibilities of the plot, or the way neither the heroes’ nor the villains’
moves make even a lick of sense for the goals they want to achieve. In this
context, Waller’s visual pizazz starts to feel stale and disconnected to what’s
actually going on in the film. What started exciting turns into a slog of
a movie that randomly throws in twists it didn’t bother to prepare or think
through, with some of the most gratuitous nudity you’ll find outside of a 60s
exploitation movie thrown in as a dubious bonus.
The first thirty minutes would still make a fine short film, though.