In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1995 and seven from 1985 (in an upcoming double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
Whittled down to a single sentence, Mute Witness sounds like little more than a lurid inversion of Wait Until Dark: After seeing what she assumes is a snuff-film murder at a Moscow movie studio, a mute American prop handler named Billy (Marina Zudina) must herself evade death at the killers’ hands.
Movies like this are often prebuilt with modern aims to menace in a mesmerizing way. There is no A-list star to lend gravitas, no budget of which to speak. Basically, all Mute Witness needs to do is sustain enough wild, manic energy to burn off 90 minutes. Writer-director Anthony Waller’s 1995 film certainly offers the propulsive pulp you’d expect, with playful gallows humor and a full surplus of twists. Waller’s script flirts with no fewer than four gotchas in its final two minutes alone — craftily teasing each while sidestepping commitment to any — and it keeps you in the dark about one character’s true motives until a cut to black. Even if it’s ultimately little more than a composite sketch of Waller’s influences, at least it’s not crude and indiscernible.
That’s because amid its mélange of doubt and suspicion, Mute Witness makes amusingly meta-textual hay of the way most movies deliver necessary facts … or instead blatantly lie to us and make us love it all the same. For a brief time, we wonder whether Billy saw true terror in the eyes of a woman who knew her end was nigh … or just terrific acting and persuasively vivid gore. Without getting cheeky about it, Waller plays with the notion of perception as reality, and how it reflects our masochistic glee as an audience when suspension of disbelief works our nerves like a speed bag.
Waller also regularly casts off the traditional comforts with which movies convey important information. Large swaths of dialogue in Mute Witness arrive in Russian, with nary a subtitle to be found. We’re purposefully unmoored, and trapped in the same frustrating, and perilous, communication dead zone as Billy — whose sign language itself erects a barrier to people who speak English let alone Russian. When it isn’t intentionally obscuring language, Mute Witness often omits it altogether through Billy’s mute state. The result is strangely pure, powerful visual storytelling so thorough you could almost watch the entire film without sound and stay enthralled.
The beauty of simplicity in Mute Witness contradicts the decade of complications that nearly kept it from being seen at all. After he became the youngest-ever student at the United Kingdom’s National Film School, Waller settled into German advertising in the 1980s. It was while he lived in Hamburg, and by sheer chance, that Waller one day met Academy Award-winning actor Alec Guinness in 1985.
Bravely and brazenly, Waller asked Guinness to perform a cameo as “The Reaper” in what would eventually become Mute Witness. Not only did the legendary actor say yes, he said he’d do it for free. But there was a catch: Guinness had to catch a plane the next morning, and it would be 18 months before his schedule opened up again. Calling an audible, Waller suggested shooting that night in an underground car park. Guinness agreed, and they filmed the brief scene on the fly in the wee small hours.
Thus, Mute Witness is also a movie trivia tidbit: Chronologically, it is the last feature film in which Guinness appeared before his death in 2000. However, the actor shot three additional features (and other projects) after that night — including Little Dorrit, for which he earned a fourth Oscar nomination.
At best, Guinness appears in Mute Witness for 30 seconds (and Waller milks that half-minute for a second scene later by simply reversing angles). But “The Reaper” — so named for the inevitable death awaiting those who see his face — is a Russian mob boss around whose empire of dirty deeds the entire plot revolves.
“As long as there are witnesses, there’s no money,” Guinness gloomily intones in a mildly soupy accent to a goon who is failing to isolate him from a blackmail plot. Though ballyhooed upon the film’s release, this scene is more or less a tony version of the perfunctory insert scene Mark Borchardt struggles to elicit from his Uncle Bill in American Movie. But it certainly propels the plot forward after the first act.
Now, getting Guinness turned out to be the easy part. Nearly a decade later, Waller was prepped to largely self-finance the rest of the film. Originally intending to shoot in Chicago, he pivoted to Moscow in hopes of capitalizing on cheaper sets and labor. The problems that came next play like an illegally steroidal application of Murphy’s Law.
Corrupt customs officials promptly impounded production gear flown to Moscow and demanded a $60,000 bribe to release it. Waller has said “with a little diplomacy, a few thousand dollars and a lot of vodka, the producers were able to free the equipment.” Then the crew had to dodge the modern world’s largest diphtheria outbreak since the 1960s, temperatures that plummeted to 20 degrees below zero and Russia’s “second October revolution.” During this standoff between Russia’s parliament and President Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s White House was burned, military force was employed and the death toll, by some counts, reached 2,000. Escaping with their lives, let alone a film and one this good, would have been impressive.
In a winking prologue, we assume the perspective of a heavy-breathing voyeur who prowls an apartment while the radio tells us three murderers have escaped an asylum. The image cuts to plump, ruby-red lips on which moisture smacks with the same wetness of a knife that pierces her flesh several times over. As she succumbs to death, her killer — clad in a bloodied blouse and skirt straight off the De Palma wardrobe rack — admires his handiwork. A second man, likely his cohort, lights his smoke. Then, a third man gulps hungrily from a flask. This must be the murderous trio. But then … a fourth man. A woman. A crew.
Well before this, you realize it’s taking this woman longer to die than Lou Diamond Phillips in Young Guns II. The men who have “killed” her laugh, shushed by a soundman who fears he’ll be asked to salvage this shoddy take. Yes, it’s a film set — one so trashed by the actress’s misinterpretation of “more” that it will take the crew a full day to redress it. “It’s not Chekhov!,” screams flustered American director Andy Clarke (Evan Richards) as his Russian crew cackles behind him.
Meanwhile, Billy and her sister, Karen (Fay Ripley), take advantage of the incident to advise the actors on how to more persuasively squeeze their stage blood squibs. Andy sends the crew home, but Billy goes back for an important prop to fix. After she’s inadvertently locked inside the studio (and her logical phone call for help promptly foiled), Billy finds a more salacious production has already set up shop. At first blush, it seems a soft-core fetish porno flick … until the moans of a busty blonde at whom a masked brute plows away turn from seeming pleasure to abject terror.
That Billy can’t scream, no matter how she yearns to, proves an asset. Ditto for her wispy frame that grants her stealth to match her silence. Still, fear is fear — leading to miscues that set these supposed killers on her trail through the building. Waller makes the building’s internal geography endless, oppressive, inescapable. Long, dark hallways. Light carved in razor-sharp edges along unfamiliar surfaces, offering no respite. A faceless brute’s relentless pursuit. Shadows jumping forth like a predator you’re powerless to stop. An industrial incinerator that feels like hell’s molten core. It’s an immersive nightmare that Waller prolongs with unnerving tension and osmotic fright.
Billy eventually escapes the studio but quickly faces greater danger in familiar environments. (Waller and company also evoke the busted-halogen blight of Russia at which they perhaps got too close a look; the camera marvels over little about the nation besides a scene when a car barrels onto Red Square.) Here, Zudina’s performance adeptly addresses Billy’s understated attributes of strength: the swiftness to arm herself whenever possible, the speed and skill with which she works TTD software to dial 911 (even if it’s ultimately to little avail), her split-second decision while under siege to capture a peeper’s attention by flashing some skin.
For the most part, Billy acts with the wise resiliency of a final girl from the first frame. And Waller finds tension even within Billy’s struggle for independence. Despite asserting she’s OK by herself, one attempt to relax only reinforces that Billy shouldn’t be alone with her heightened senses just then.
When a poised, English-speaking inspector named Larsen (Oleg Jankowskij) shows up for Act III, you worry he’s a bothersome cop ex machina dropped in to draw out the movie. But then Waller zigs and zags where you think he’s marking time, to something that bears passing resemblance to Charade. “They’ll kill you!,” Larsen says when Billy flees him in suspicion. Note he makes no mention of his intentions.
Two years after “Mute Witness,” Waller directed An American Werewolf in Paris — a lackluster sequel to An American Werewolf in London that flopped on all fronts and essentially excommunicated him from the mainstream. (His filmography since blends crime noir, supernatural thrillers and a documentary about the Singularity.) You come away feeling like Waller poured all the true inspiration he had into Mute Witness. But for a film ostensibly forged through a favor and trial-by-fire moviemaking, it carves out a place of pride in the panoply of ’90s psychological thrillers that throw you for a loop … or six.