Director: Karthik Subbaraj
Cast: Prabhu Deva, Sananth Reddy, Indhuja, Gajaraj, Deepak Paramesh, Shashank Purushotham, Anish Padmanabhan
Five youngsters reunite for an alumni meet, rent a cottage, get wasted, dance to loud music and take the car out for a nostalgic late-night spin. They run over a local and dump his body at a deserted factory. Soon, one by one, they will face the wrath of the zombified man. On the face of it, Mercury reads like the same old supernatural revenge template. If anything, the one girl and four boys deserve hell. Writers tend to paint such characters as largely arrogant, flimsy and unsavoury millennials – so that we derive a moralistic kind of perverse pleasure from the horror that awaits them. We find it scary because murder is an unnatural sight, but we also find it fascinating that the jerks get their dues.
But Karthik Subbaraj isn’t your regular filmmaker; not unlike the Tarantinos and Edgar Wrights of the world, he allows his obsessive movie-buff-ness to inform his audacious genre subversions.
Let’s fill in the gaps now: the five youngsters are deaf and mute. They are genuinely happy to be with each other. One of them is wooing the girl in a non-sleazy, unsexy way. She likes him, too. The music is loud to produce vibrations, and the flashing LEDs form their “visual sound” system. They party till the cops are called, yes, but it’s impossible to dislike them. Their former special school had the alumni function. This hometown was once the scene of a major chemical disaster: 84 died due to mercury poisoning from an evil ‘Corporate Earth’ plant.
Even when they head out for a spin, they don’t create a nuisance. In fact they stop to pay homage at the 25-year-old memorial. In short, they are good people. They don’t make for your stock slasher-flick targets. They can’t even scream in terror. Disability in films is generally an underdog trait. But here, Subbaraj spends a languid opening twenty minutes establishing their chemistry so that it’s not sympathy but empathy that will come to define their circumstances. It might almost seem strange that they are being terrorized for an accident. Which is why Mercury, too, becomes the kind of movie whose horror acquires an extra dimension by being accidental.
It symbolizes the kind of unending generational decay that is triggered by horrific real-life apathy – the kind where wars are fought against one’s own irreversible conditions to achieve a semblance of normalcy. Both, the mysterious man (Prabhu Deva) and his potential victims don’t really belong here. They occupy a rare landscape where technically nobody is the antagonist. Like Pawan Kumar’s Kannada-language U-turn – an “investigative” supernatural thriller built upon the menace of rule-breaking motorists – Mercury’s horror is both a device and consequence to suggest a broader social force. It is more of a tragedy that just happens to choose a cinematically vivid genre to make a point; there’s nothing silent about it, even though a word isn’t spoken.
The “look” of Mercury’s quiet is informed by Subbaraj’s love for not just the craft but also the overall medium
It shares a point of view with John Krasinski’s recent gem, A Quiet Place, in that the element of deafness is torn between being a survivalist strength and bittersweet handicap. Fortunately, Subbaraj commits to the form in the way an advertisement brand chooses to float a solid short film to showcase an unrelated product. It isn’t the most pragmatic method, but then what about storytelling – a sequence of carefully constructed lies – really is?
The “look” of Mercury’s quiet is informed by Subbaraj’s love for not just the craft but also the overall medium. The theme of filmmaking itself – a regular physical feature of his narratives (novelist in Pizza, directors in Jigarthanda and Iraivi) – appropriately assumes more of an audiovisual identity here. There are homages and indulgences. In an early scene, we see something of an artistic money shot – the kind movie-nerds-turned-storytellers die to create. The shadow of a couple intertwined romantically is reflected onto the dark horizon by bright headlights, making it look as if they were dancing in the air. In another, through the frames of adjacent car windows we see two of the boys angrily gesture at one another – making them look like separate silent movies playing on neighboring television sets.
There are no subtitles for any of their sign language, which forces us to locate the frantic feeling in their grunts and faces – akin to watching a primal silent film that places action and communication on the same pedestal. This also provides a wide scope for the background score. And Subbaraj doesn’t hold back, choosing to overwrite the ambience with classically lavish punctuations of individualism.
The music sways from Beethoven’s somber Moonlight Sonata to Perfect Sense’s Max Richter-style strings (incidentally a movie about humankind losing their “sensory perceptions”) to booming jump scares and empty echoes in sync with some exceptionally fluid camerawork (which sort of mirrors the ubiquity of sound and the liquidity of mercury). We even hear a smatter of Edith Paif’s Non, je ne regrette rien, the song more commonly known as the “kick” music from Inception – in Mercury, too, the track signals the beginning of the group’s nightmare, and effectively the end of their dreams. The camera also moves in a manner that suggests an unbroken continuity to the events unfurling over two nights; time lapses are minimal, and we see almost everything that these characters see between the party and spatial horror within the abandoned factory.
The final reveal, heavy on backstory, is stretched but oddly hypnotic; there’s a personality to it that relies solely on the preconceived suspensions and stubborn traditionalism of the genre. It depends on the “image” of horror cinema. You can almost sense the maker intent on humanizing the inherent recklessness of horror. To the trained eye, this is an expository faceoff. To an untrained eye, though, it might look like two people simply speaking to one another. Because Mercury finds context, and not just gimmickry, in its treatment of sound. It remains scary precisely because the actual ghosts are never seen, but only ever heard about. Just like real life.