[Deep Focus]


Written and Directed by Anthony Waller
Edited by Peter R. Adam
Cinematography by Egon Werdin
Music by Wilbert Hirsch
Starring Marina Sudina, Fay Ripley,
Evan Richards, and Oleg Jankowskij
Russia/Germany/Great Britain 1995


Mute Witness is really two movies in one. The first half is a creepy, nearly hallucinatory thriller with style to burn and camera moves torn from Brian DePalma's playbook. The second half is a comic action picture, with quick bursts of violence perforating the corkscrew plot and ugly Americans tearing up the roads of Moscow. The switchover is disconcerting until you get into the mood of the film. Writer/director Anthony Waller has created a skillful homage to scary movies, and if the whole thing winds up off-balance, it's probably because he's still a little loopy from years of intoxication on pseudo-political thrillers and cheap slasher films. You can smell it on his breath, and this film is his way of passing you the bottle.

Russian actress Marina Sudina stars as Billy Hughes, the witness of the title. She's an American make-up effects artist shooting a dreadful horror picture on the cheap in Moscow with her sister Karen (Fay Ripley) and an American B-movie director, Andy (Evan Richards). She can't speak, which makes her situation all the more precarious when she's locked into the old film studio after dark -- she resorts to telephoning her friends and tapping urgently on the phone receiver to try and get their attention. While she's trying to find help, Billy stumbles across a threesome (the cameraman and an actor from Andy's film, along with an unknown woman) who are apparently shooting a porn flick on the sly. But as Billy watches from the shadows, the movie turns into a snuff film -- the woman is brutally murdered at the end of the scene.

As Billy runs away, she's plunged into a cat and mouse game with the two men. Chased through hallways, stairwells, and even an elevator shaft, she searches for a way out of the building in a breathless series of set pieces that emphasize her hopeless physical disadvantage against the larger men. Mute Witness has a keen sense of geography, and the camera movement is choreographed against the positions of the actors to sustain a remarkable cinematic tension. Sudina has a keen sense of her character, too, playing Billy as determined but terrified, smart but vulnerable. Her performance, along with Waller's sure, straightforward direction, render some of the script's more obvious implausibilities irrelevant in favor of sharp audience identification with Billy. And when the veracity of what she saw is called into question -- was the 'murder' she witnessed really just a clever special effect? -- the audience, too, is forced to reconsider its own experience of the murder on screen.

This one was a labor of love, and it shows. The film's history dates back at least to 1985, when Waller, then a director and editor of movie trailers and music videos, filmed the scene featuring Sir Alec Guinness as "The Reaper." Principal photography finally began in October of 1993, and was subject to bad weather and delays. Mute Witness was originally written to take place in Chicago, but was moved to Moscow, partly for economic reasons. The relocation works wonders for the story, adding a layer of isolation for both the American characters in the film, and for the (primarily English speaking) audience watching it. The fairly extensive Russian dialogue is not translated, and we're as much at a loss to understand those communications as Billy is to make her own meaning clear. An excellent score, composed and recorded in Russia by Wilbert Hirsch, adds texture to the largely wordless environment, underscoring Billy's silent screams with piercing crescendos. And the ready-made movie environment of the Mosfilm studios is a wonderful backdrop for some virtuosic filmmaking.

Unfortunately, too many of those truly exciting moments are crammed into the first segment of the film, and the remainder dwells a bit heavily on the expected unexpected plot twists and a missing item that bears no relation at all to what's important in the film -- Hitchcock would call that a MacGuffin, and its presence is just one of the ways that Mute Witness makes reference to its own genre. Still, a bogus gimmick is a bogus gimmick, and Waller isn't quite Hitchcock. Worse is Waller's decision to bring Karen and Andy back into the picture as ineffectual comic relief. It's probably part of an efficient joke about bumbling young American directors working abroad, but Andy's presence is a little more irritating than it should be.

But if Mute Witness ultimately disappoints, it's because it starts running too fast and just can't keep up the pace. Joyously manipulative and happily morbid, the movie's style might be closest to Danny Boyle's downbeat Shallow Grave or Kenneth Branagh's even more exuberant Dead Again (it's better than the former, but not up to the high standards of the latter). Mute Witness is a hard-won battle from a filmmaker who has already doubtless started looking for ways to top himself. When Waller figures out how to apply this giddy level of craft to a project that doesn't meander and muck about in the trappings of its own genre, it should certainly be something to see.

A completely subjective archive
DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer