Sam Shepard, the prize-winning author of more than 30 plays, always has been obsessed with families in spiritual and ethical crisis.
So when he got the opportunity to write and direct a feature film, no one should have been surprised that Shepard delivered a drama about family and collective guilt.
What is surprising about Silent Tongue (1993) is the flat-out weirdness of this Western.
On the surface it’s the story of two families in crisis.
The year before Prescott bought a young halfbreed woman to be his son’s bride. Now she has died in childbirth and Talbot has gone mad with grief, standing vigil at the foot of the tree in which the young woman’s body rests. (Plains Indians did not bury their dead, preferring to leave them above the ground on scaffolding where they would be taken care of by scavengers and the elements).
Fearful for his child’s sanity, Prescott rides off to find the traveling medicine show from which he bought the girl. She has a sister...perhaps he can return Talbot to sanity by replacing the dead woman with her sibling.
The second family featured in Silent Tongue is that of Eamon McCree (Alan Bates), operator of the medicine show.
Eamon drinks way too much of his own patent medicine and seems to have no moral compass. He has a son, Reeves (Dermot Mulroney), by a failed marriage, and and sired two daughters after imprisoning and raping the mute Kiowa woman Silent Tongue (Tantoo Cardinal).
While he was happy enough to sell one daughter to Prescott for several fine horses, Eamon is unwilling to part with the second, Velada (Jeri Arrendondo), a bareback rider who is the prime attraction of his rattletrap revue.
A desperate Prescott kidnaps Velada, determined to bring her to his tormented boy.
Eamon and Reeves follow in pursuit.
Shepard’s setup has the makings of a straightforward oater. But Silent Tongue is anything but a typical horse opera.
For starters, it’s spectacularly surreal. The scenes set in the medicine show are just this side of an LSD episode, with a couple of baggy-pants comics (one of them the brilliant clown Bill Irwin), a camel, a fire-eater, dwarf acrobats, a contortionist and a petrified man.
Providing music for the medicine show are the members of the Red Clay Ramblers, a old-timey string band that was essential to Shepard’s 1985 off-Broadway hit play, A Lie of the Mind. Shepard was so impressed by the ensemble that he cast them as musicians in the film.
These over-the-top visual elements are reminiscent of Federico Fellini at his most out-there. Or perhaps Shepard was referencing El Topo, the hallucinogenic 1970 Mexican “Western” that has achieved cult immortality.
But there’s more. Periodically Silent Tongue drifts back to the crazed Talbot, who is tormented by his wife’s decaying ghost (Sheila Tousey, who began her film career by sharing the screen with Shepard in Thunderheart two years earlier). The dead woman seems bent on taking revenge on the entire white race for the unhappy fate of her abused mother.
These moments have the feel of a classic Japanese ghost story...in fact, Tousey’s performance feels like it could have been patterned on Kabuki techniques.
And then there’s Bates’ Eamon, who as he pursues Prescott and his kidnapped daughter swills bottle after bottle of elixir. His loquaciousness unleashed, this degenerate delivers a torrent of blarney and semi-Shakespearean ranting, along with some obscene limericks.
Well, that’s a lot of weird stuff to keep in balance, and Shepard doesn’t always pull it off.
But Silent Tongue is filled with terrific moments and its vision of the West as a barren landscape (it was filmed in New Mexico) offers both beauty and terror.
Critical opinion about the film has been all over the place, ranging from “nothing less than a classical tragedy, a sort of ‘Hamlet’ set in the American west” to “a spellbinding mess of Greco-Roman, Irish and Native American myth, revisionist chic and theatrical tradition.”
But whether you regard it as a success or a failure, Silent Tongue is a hard movie to shake off.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.