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USA 1993
Directed by
Sam Shepard
102 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Silent Tongue

Although in his career as a playwright and actor Sam Shepard specializes in rural Americana, his second outing as a writer-director (his first, Far North belonged to the same category) recalls the Japanese kwaidan or 'ghost story', best known to Anglo-film buffs through Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964). Take this, rather than John Ford as your point of reference and Silent Tongue is quite an interesting melding of the two genres, albeit one that remains slight

Alan Bates plays a dypsomaniacal medicine show huckster, Eamon McCree, a reprobate who many years earlier had raped an Indian woman, Silent Tongue (Tantoo Cardinal), who had been mutilated and abandoned by her Kiowa tribe. Out of the union came twin girls, Awbonnie (Sheila Tousey) and Velada (Jeri Arredondo), the former who Eamon traded with Prescott Roe (Richard Harris) as a wife for Roe’s mentally-challenged son (River Phoenix). However when Awbonnie dies in labour and the son goes mad with grief, Roe tracks down Eamon and tries to buy the sister in the hope that the young man will regain his senses. But the white men have not counted on Silent Tongue’s vengeful spirit.

As the writer, Shepard gives himself some interesting elements to work with but one feels that they needed a less laconic directorial hand in order to come fully alive. Arguably there is too much of Alan Bates, amusing as he is, and his medicine show whilst River Phoenix (who died before the film was released) does little more than mutter and grimace. Harris who had the year before appeared as English Bob in Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) on the other hand gives a grounded performance that anchors the two sides of Shepard’s story – the quackish and the shamanic - that otherwise stay quite separate. Whilst it may leave many indifferent (and it did in its day) fans of Shepard’s work, at least, will find it worthwhile tracking down.




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