While big Bollywood musicals have their fans, Indian cinema is not celebrated for horrors and thrillers. The dominant examples of those genres in the country tend to be unintentionally comic or formulaic and uninspired. In “Mercury,” Tamil writer-director Karthik Subbaraj aims to change that with a unique stunt — a thriller film that’s also silent. This gimmick, currently familiar to American audiences with John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place,” plays out in very different terms with Subbaraj’s movie. Whereas “A Quiet Place” found the survivors of a monster attack forced to stay silent to stay alive, the survivors in “Mercury” have no choice, because they’re all deaf and mute. The movie’s biggest setbacks have less to do with the original premise than the formulaic elements that creep in.
As if aware of the tall order, the film tries not to make its self-imposed challenge feel gratuitous. Rather than functioning merely as a stylistic device, the lack of spoken words is woven into the screenplay as a product of the characters’ circumstances. Opening scenes reveal that all five leads (Sananth Reddy, Deepak Paramesh, Anish Padman, Shashank and Remya Nambeesan) can’t hear or speak, and there’s a specific reason: the infamous 2001 Unilever (disguised here as “Corporate Earth”) mercury poisoning case in the southern state of Kodaikanal, where improper disposal practices led to death and disabilities for the plant’s workers and city’s residents.
The modern-day story begins as the five friends reunite after an alumni event in an apparently rented home. Though the setting is slightly eerie—the house appears disconcertingly removed from the rest of the town—the vibe inside is celebratory. From the amplified creaking of the indoor swing, the sizzle of hot oil as appetizers fry, and vibrations from the cranked-up dance music which the characters use as their dancing cues, it’s clear that despite being a “silent” film, sound plays a key role. But its relationship to the plot becomes clearer once the gang takes a drive, and after series of unlucky accidents, find themselves trapped in the now-dilapidated Corporate Earth factory and stalked by a deranged murderer. It’s that the slightest noise could make the difference between making it out alive or being killed by whoever is waiting inside.
That brings us into “A Quiet Place” territory: “Mercury” becomes less about plot than its execution, with the use of sound sans dialogue used to ratchet up the tension in several ways: music director Santhosh Narayanan’s choices of orchestral scores and piano interludes are curious but effective juxtapositions to the narrative; they ebb and crescendo on cue with ominous effects. Paired with sound designer Kunal Rajan’s sharp attention to the softest of footsteps, clanging of metal, or panicked stillness, the audio makes the lack of dialogue almost unnoticeable.
Yet even as “Mercury” dares to take risks with its sound, the formula often sneaks in and a few horror tropes become big distractions: ghostly full moons, abandoned spaces tangled in sticky cobwebs, plenty of dark shadows, and extreme close-ups of the characters’ terror-filled eyes. Jump scares, used liberally as the killer (South Indian film legend Prabhu Deva) emerges from unexpected places, initially do their job — but inevitably begin to feel like disappointing reaches for low-hanging fruit.
But the most frustrating aspect of the movie is its abrupt tonal shift as the climax dissolves into an emotional drama with a social message about the dangers of corporate greed. While obviously intended to infuse deeper meaning into what would otherwise be a wafer-thin plot, the bizarre detour disempowers the victims even further by pitting them against each other instead of the larger threat they face together.
And while the historical backdrop could have made for a compelling metaphor, the clichés and heavy-handedness of “Mercury” ultimately outweigh the novelty of its premise, while its sloppy social relevance angle does more to confound than clarify the disaster in question. “Mercury” may be remembered as the first silent thriller in Indian cinema, but it’s far from the heart-stopper we’re looking for.
“Mercury” opens in select U.S. theaters on Friday, April 13.