Silent Tongue
directed by Sam Shepard
(Alive Films, 1993)

The camera pans across the New Mexico desert, then up a tree to a woman's body. Below sits a distraught young man with a rifle. A vulture circles above. Shots ring out. The vulture falls. The man scatters its feathers across the corpse.

You know something's happening here, but you don't know what it is.

Cut to an older man riding across the desert, three horses in tow. He circles around "The Kickapoo Medicine Show," where midgets juggle, comics joke about ghosts and a Kiowa warrior princess with more tricks than she has sleeves to stuff them up does equine acrobatics designed to sell 120-proof medicine to a dusty mob.

Something is happening here, and chances are you'll never know where it is. That's because you're in Shepard's country -- Sam Shepard's country.

Any film written or directed by Shepard (The Curse of the Starving Class, Paris, Texas) is going to be difficult. So any film written and directed by the award-winning actor-playwright is bound to be a double puzzle. In that, Silent Tongue does not disappoint.

Only slowly do the mysteries unravel.

The distraught young man (River Phoenix) is guarding the body of his Kiowa wife (Sheila Tousey), who died in childbirth. His father (Richard Harris), afraid his son will go mad with grief, has gone off to the medicine show in hopes of swapping the horses for the dead woman's sister, the trick rider.

Their father, a snake-oil salesman named McCree (Alan Bates), is only too happy to cut a deal, but his son (Dermot Mulroney) is against selling off any more of the family. And so it's kidnapping time.

Shepard films have almost everything working against them. They're talky, brooding, inscrutable and so symbol-laden they groan under their own weight. That said, they're also brilliant and irresistible, with a unique perspective on the West and a decided bent for saying something new.

Silent Tongue's themes are familiar to anyone familiar with Shepard's work: The interconnectedness of our actions, our inability to escape the past and the special talent family members have for finding new and inventive ways to be cruel to one another. The last is especially poignant here because Shepard contrasts the all-consuming love of one father to the hateful disregard of a second.

Then he extends the theme, examining the son's relationship to his dead wife -- asking what the responsibility of the living is to the dead, and, believe it or not, vice versa. It's a question that grows more chilling as the film progresses, and no pat moral can cover Shepard's answer.

The performances are inspired, if a bit theatrical, all around. Bates is especially good as the bad father, a snake-oil salesman steeped in his own venom. And River Phoenix, looking like Lon Chaney on a bad hair day, lived up to his reputation as a latter-day James Dean. Only Harris, the old pro's old pro, is able to top them.

Silent Tongue has much to say about the West, about families, about man's inhumanity to man and what one character calls "the fever of the demon prairie and all its attendant ills."

Does Shepard say it entertainingly? By any normal standards, no. Does he say it well? Yes, oh yes.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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