Mercury Review: A worthy experiment with some memorable stretches
This silent film is elevated by Karthik Subbaraj's masterful visual storytelling
I’ll remember Mercury quite a while — not for its wholesomeness, but for some truly delicious stretches of filmmaking. In a scene, a couple are in an Ale Ale moment, having just expressed their feelings for each other. As the young is wont to do, they begin dancing — no hurried, frenzied steps, but a slow dance to celebrate the magic of their new bond. Another filmmaker would use it as a song opportunity, perhaps have them exchange a cute line or two, but Karthik isn’t any filmmaker. He combines the mist of the hillstation and a car’s headlights to concoct the bewitching image of the couple’s silhouettes dancing. It’s beautiful, elemental filmmaking. It’s an unforgettable moment for the couple, and you realise that too, not by having to hear them say it, but simply by virtue of having partaken in it. If that’s not visual storytelling, what is?
Cast: Deepak Paramesh, Anish Padmanabhan, Sananth Reddy, Shashank Purushothaman, Prabhudheva, Remya Nambeesan
Director: Karthik Subbaraj
There are more arresting visuals. A deer in headlights (an idiom quite appropriate for the situation of the protagonists). The toxic green of a run-down factory. A meandering baby bird. A cockroach writhing in a pool of strange liquid. There’s never a dull moment for the eyes. While geography usually feels arbitrary in films, here, there’s great specificity concerning locations. After the film, you have a sense of exactly where the CCTV camera is, in relation to the Corporate Earth factory. You know exactly where the factory is in relation to their house. These aren’t details easily conveyed.
As for your ears, in a film without any dialogues, there’s — as you can imagine — plenty of work put into getting minor details of ambient sound right. This is never more evident than in one beautiful stretch, when all-consuming silence engulfs the scene and sucks the entire theatre in too. The scene in question has two very frightened characters doing all they can to remain completely silent. All you hear is the distant sound of falling water drops. In such overbearing quiet, every plop feels like a roar, every breath a shriek. It reminds you of the line that precedes the beginning of the film: Silence is the most powerful scream.
In the absence of dialogues, there’s a lot you see in new light. For instance, you notice the uniqueness of the characters’ laughter, every time it breaks the quiet. Even seemingly insignificant sounds register more strongly than they usually would. The main track haunting the film is Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Santhosh Narayanan teases with his own version of it right at the beginning. Towards the end, the actual version takes centre stage. It’s quite appropriate not just because one of the characters is a self-confessed Beethoven fan, but because the story, in a sense, is actually Moonlight Sonata. The events all unfold under moonlight after all.
You also get a whiff of Edith Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien, which as many of us know was famously used in Inception to signal the end of a dream. In a sense, it serves the same function here too. Around the time it gets played is when the dreams of all the characters truly begin to get crushed. The French line translates to, “No, I regret nothing”, which, if it’s not too much of a stretch, could perhaps, just perhaps indicate the lack of remorse quite a few characters feel at that time.
It’s that sort of film, Mercury. When you’re consuming such work, you know there are very few coincidences. It all exists by design — a complete jigsaw that still has space for more pieces. I couldn’t but wonder if the unwitting youngsters perhaps stood for humanity that can’t help but contaminate its planet. If yes, then, is Prabhudheva’s character a personification of the planet? Is that why he’s so damaged, and in primal search of some silence? Is that why there’s an affecting scene that has him imprisoned, even as toxic liquid spills all over him? Perhaps that’s why Prabhudheva was even cast in the first place? Even while unleashing destruction, even while terrorising, the actor manages to bring a certain inexplicable vulnerability to his role. You’re afraid of him, and yet, you’re sorry for him. Two feelings I definitely have towards our planet.
However, if you’re the sort to strip Mercury of all these potential layers and experience it superficially as a straightforward horror film, I’m not entirely sure the proceedings will feel too entertaining or inventive. There’s an end portion that could cause some differently abled to lift eyebrows. I also didn’t care for the sermonising at the end. No fact-sharing can be as impactful as a well-told story, and in a film like Mercury that’s designed to be a champion of visual storytelling, it’s a rather ungainly move to suffix it with a message. While on visual storytelling, I must share that the theatre I saw it in played subtitles for the characters’ gestures for almost half the film. It’s a despicable idea for a film like this. Thankfully, they realised their folly in the second half.
I kept thinking about the symbol used in the posters — that all the characters look at entranced at one point in the film. It’s the alchemical symbol of Mercury, the god of commercial gain — which, of course, is what the film stands against. In a poetic way, it’s also fitting that stripped of its wings, the symbol also comprises the biological sign of a female, given the last film Karthik Subbaraj made. With Mercury though, the director’s grown wings, and that’s good reason to look forward to his next.