Silent Tongue

(Sam Shepard, France/USA, 1992)


Silent Tongue is an odd, little-known movie which many will be curious to see, not only because Sam Shepard is the writer-director but also because it contains the final performance of River Phoenix.

Largely a French production, it is clearly Shepard's attempt to fashion a jagged, Gothic Western in the wake of successes such as Unforgiven (1992) and Dances with Wolves (1990) that have unexpectedly revitalised the genre.

Phoenix plays Talbot, a manic depressive in the wilderness wailing over the corpse of his Indian bride (Sheila Tousey). Theirs was a marriage made in hell, for she was sold to him by the corrupt carnival man McCree (Alan Bates) who fathered her by raping Silent Tongue (Tantoo Cardinal).

Once Talbot's father (Richard Harris) restarts this whole vicious cycle by purchasing the girl's twin sister, a hideously disfigured ghost appears, out for revenge.

Shepard is dealing with potent themes in this dark, melancholic fable of intercultural genocide and payback. The film's eco-feminist slant is far less reassuring than in Dances with Wolves and also more genuine, since Shepard has been interrogating the original sins at the heart of America's pioneer mythology for decades.

Unfortunately, he lacks Clint Eastwood's directorial mastery; neither the strident performances nor the ambitious narrative patterns ever satisfyingly cohere.

Silent Tongue is a brave attempt at making a stark, subversive Western. But it is too rough and artless for its own good.

© Adrian Martin August 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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