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Speak No Evil

The Russian underworld surfaces in 'Mute Witness'

By Richard von Busack

Snuff films are an urban legend so persistent it's amazing that they haven't been a source for many movies. The outstanding new thriller Mute Witness features a brave heroine in a corrupt locale: modern-day Russia under the thumb of omnipotent gangsters. Any suspension of disbelief one might have had about snuff-film rings is unnecessary, amidst the visible degradation of Moscow and the usual menace caused by seeing everyday signs written in that unsettling backward alphabet.

On location with an inept, Z-grade maniac picture, a mute makeup and special-effects woman, Billy (Russian actress Marina Sudina in a pantomime performance), is accidentally locked up in a studio overnight. She sees two of the crew making their own little slasher movie, only with real blood. The evidence of the crime, of course, turns up missing, and the police may or may not be on the take. Marked for murder by a Russian gang, Billy has to save herself during the course of a night. Helping her is Larsen (Oleg Jankowskij), an investigator who may be mixed up with the gangsters.

Among the film's surprises is a "mystery guest star" playing the Moriarty/Keyser Soze (from Usual Suspects) role. This extremely distinguished actor is on screen for exactly the right amount of time to dazzle you with his cameo. The few shots of "The Reaper," as this gangster is known, were taken ten years ago; perhaps the long lead time is what makes Mute Witness such an extraordinarily fine thriller. You get the impression that director Anthony Waller, in his feature-film debut, was turning this idea over in his mind for quite some time, conceiving escapes, gimmicks, twists and numerous devices wherein Billy's silence could be used to increase the suspense.

Considering the subject matter, it's a fairly light film, an entertainment, though Waller does touch a nerve. There's a subtext here about the dubious moral superiority of an audience enjoying a movie in which actors pretend to die, as opposed to those who enjoy a movie where the actors actually die. Billy's only real evidence of a killing is her belief that as a professional she can tell the difference between a real murder and a fake one by the look on a person's face. "Once you see it, you never forget it," Larsen says, and we ourselves see various actors in Mute Witness try their best to emote that doubtlessly unforgettable sight. It's enough to make you feel a little guilty, for a moment or two. Mute Witness takes various themes seen before in films such as Wait Until Dark, F/X and Blow Out, and weaves them into something very new and exciting. Its inventiveness leaves you rather speechless.

Mute Witness (R; 98 min.), directed and written by Anthony Waller; photographed by Egon Werdin and starring Marina Sudina and Oleg Jankowski, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose and the Park in Menlo Park.

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