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Silent Tongue

Directed by Sam Shepard. Starring River Phoenix, Alan Bates, Richard Harris, Dermot Mulroney, Sheila Tousey, Jeri Arredondo, Tantoo Cardinal.

REVIEWED By Alvaro Rodriguez, Fri., June 17, 1994

In Sam Shepard's Silent Tongue, the late River Phoenix stars as Talbot Roe, a griev-ing, half-mad prairie farmer who keeps watch over the corpse of his half-breed wife Awbonnie (Tousey). Prescott Roe (Harris), Talbot's father, returns to seek out Eamon McCree (Bates), the tonic-swilling, crooked ringleader of a traveling medicine show and Awbonnie's father, hoping that he can be swayed to sell his second half-breed daugh-ter, Velada (Arredondo) as a substitute for Awbonnie (both girls are the daughters of a Kiowa squaw named Silent Tongue (Cardinal) whom Eamon raped and has since fled or died). Reeves (Mulroney), Eamon's son, finds his father's actions despicable and refuses to let him sell his remaining sister. But Prescott kidnaps Velada at dawn and they race to where his son grieves a few days away, and Eamon and Reeves follow. (The whole thing is kind of an Old West twist on the plot of La Strada.) In the meanwhile, though, the dead Awbonnie has been making some pleas of her own: Her spirit awakens to beg Talbot to set her body into the campfire and let her have her freedom to return to the worlds beyond. It's obvious that Shepard has a certain love for his subject, and he has made a compelling film. Like a good yarn, it is strengthened by over-the-top acting from Bates and Phoenix. Harris is remarkably subdued (no “Camelot” speeches here). Tousey as the spirit of Awbonnie is absolutely frightening, her face made up to be half-human, half-monster, and it is her performance that shines brightest. The film's weaker points lie in the constant return to the medicine show, as if there's something more to be said there, and in Mulroney's unconvincingly flat acting. But Shepard is a master playwright whose dialogue beats its way along an American pulse, and we sense he's struggling with obtuse metaphor here: the rape of a people and land, the search for undying love and selflessness, the aimlessness of destruction, all woven together in a dusty but fascinating tapestry. It's made all the more poignant because it's Phoenix's swan song: One can't help but feel some loss watching him beneath the Tree of Death mumbling over the corpse of his wife, his hair tousled wildly as in My Own Private Idaho and know just why he doesn't want to let go.
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