SILENT TONGUE, the second directorial outing of playwright Sam Shepard, follows in the wagon ruts of FAR NORTH, his lukewarm debut. Like that film, this pretentious effort is laconic to the point of nonexistence, and suffers from too much mystical imagery and too many pictures of Indians,
which are apparently supposed to be self-evidently deep.
The Texas Panhandle, 1873. Frontiersman Prescott Roe (Richard Harris) is desperate to help his bereaved son Talbot (River Phoenix), who has been crazed with grief since his half-Kiowa wife, Awbonnie (Sheila Tousey), died in childbirth. Awbonnie's father, Eamon McCree (Alan Bates), is the
proprietor of the most joyless patent medicine show in screen history; to the lingering disgust of his son Reeves (Dermot Mulroney), McCree sold his eldest daughter to Prescott in exchange for some horses. Prescott returns to the medicine show, hoping to purchase McCree's remaining daughter,
Velada (Jeri Arredondo), a trick rider and one of the show's chief draws. A cynical drunk, McCree mistakenly believes that Prescott wishes to nullify the previous trade. Prescott kidnaps Velada, who briefly escapes but then strikes a deal with him: in exchange for his horses and cash, she'll
attempt to comfort Talbot. McCree gives chase through the desert.
Meanwhile, Talbot refuses to bury or burn Awbonnie's corpse, trapping her restless spirit on earth. Prescott arrives with Velada, who persuades Talbot to eat. Awbonnie's spirit then possesses Prescott, causing him to cremate her corpse, thereby freeing her soul. McCree becomes lost in the desert
and is captured by vengeful Indians; father and son Roe are last seen wandering the West, bonded in their misery. Watching over all these proceedings is the ghost of Silent Tongue (Tantoo Cardinal), McCree's own Kiowa bride, who conceived her daughters when McCree raped her.
Combining a sepia-toned revisionist West cribbed from McCABE AND MRS. MILLER with a mystical horror suggestive of RASHOMON, Shepard seems to be trying to fashion an American magical realism--one in which ghosts are free to wander among the living, resolving the contradictions of our violent
past. But unlike Shepard's best work for the stage--e.g., the bizarre but keenly satirical domestic black comedies Buried Child and True West--SILENT TONGUE seems to lack a clear theme and a controlling intelligence. Too often, the mystical mise-en-scene and strange doings are left to speak for
themselves, as though Shepard hopes that his film will be assumed to be profound because it is incomprehensible. An earlier version of the film was received coldly at the 1993 Sundance Festival, and the director reportedly reworked it considerably before its limited theatrical release. (Violence,nudity, sexual situations, adult situations, profanity.)
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: SILENT TONGUE, the second directorial outing of playwright Sam Shepard, follows in the wagon ruts of FAR NORTH, his lukewarm debut. Like that film, this pretentious effort is laconic to the point of nonexistence, and suffers from too much mystical imagery… (more)