Mute Witness

Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Utah, Jan. 25, l995–Anthony Waller's Mute Witness, a witty, unpretentious thriller, is a seductive piece of real filmmaking ripe with tension which should keep audiences hyperventilating to the last reel. Shot on location, well-crafted susp How Get Back Your Ex Girlfriend enser concerns three American youngsters making a movie in Moscow who inadvertently get entwined with the Russian underworld. Pic was presented in Sundance's “Park City at Midnight,” but with a shrewd campaign, Sony release can attract a broader contingency than the midnight crowd.

Using the classic format of a disabled woman in peril, writer-director Waller gracefully borrows elements from such thrillers as Wait Until Dark, starring a “blind” Audrey Hepburn, as well as F/X, placing his tale on a studio set with outstanding movie special effects playing crucial role in the plot.

The heroine, Billy (Mary Sudina), is an attractive, highly skillful special effects make-up artist, working on a low budget thriller that is directed by Andy (Evan Richards), b.f. of her sister Karen (Fay Ripley). Overly protective, Karen is worried about Billy because she's mute–she can hear but can't speak.

One night, leaving the studio with her family, 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 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 and deeper into a Russian labyrinth of mafia and terror.

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 disc containing secret info about the Russian mafia, which inadvertently gets hidden, 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, lacking any command of its language. And it also makes the movie more topical, showing how modern Russia “follows” the Western world, including organized crime.

Most of the film takes place within the controlled environment of a dilapidated movie set (the noted Mosfilm studio), where Waller achieves a superlative mise-en-scene. Helmer shows a slippery, ominous visual sense and a good nose and ear 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 presence of chameleon actor Alec Guinness, hardly recognizable here, lends some added cachet.

Tech credits in what appears to be a small-budgeter are proficient, with special kudos to Werdin's edgy lensing and Adam's tricky but precise editing.

Helmer Waller is not beyond using generic 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 that they jointly triumph over the other deficiencies.

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