Thursday, November 24, 2016

Mute Witness (1995)

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.

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