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‘Silent Tongue’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 15, 1994

Sam Shepard must have seen himself as Sophocles in a saddle when it came to the making of "Silent Tongue," the writer-director's spellbinding mess of Greco-Roman, Irish and Native American myth, revisionist chic and theatrical tradition. In this Greek tragedy on the Great Plains, Shepard effectively illustrates the tragic clash between European and aboriginal cultures that came with Western expansion.

Shepard's West, like Clint Eastwood's in "Unforgiven," is populated by scoundrels and madmen. His heroes are tarnished and worn, and his story turns on avenging a woman wronged. In this case, it's Silent Tongue (Tantoo Cardinal), a mute Kiowa, who is raped by a cowardly Irishman, Eamon McCree (Alan Bates), who knows she can't scream. The owner of the Kickapoo Traveling Medicine Show, McCree believes he has earned Silent Tongue's forgiveness by marrying her, but he has badly underestimated the extent of her rage.

Though she is the title character, Silent Tongue's part is a small one, for she relies upon her two beautiful daughters -- Awbonnie (Sheila Tousey) and Velada (Jeri Arredondo) -- to carry out a plan of vengeance. Awbonnie, who is already dead when the story begins, takes the form of a powerful banshee. Half-woman, half-buzzard, she has been tethered to this plane by her grieving husband, Talbot (River Phoenix), who clings to the corpse of his beloved late wife.

Believing that only Velada McCree can replace her sister, Talbot's father (Richard Harris) sets out to purchase her, as he did Awbonnie, from her father. Velada's half-brother (Dermot Mulroney) protests, Talbot's father kidnaps Velada and flees with the McCrees and Awbonnie's vicious ghost in pursuit.

Luckily all of this has been presaged by the medicine show players, a Greek chorus whose songs and skits echo, prepare and otherwise help audiences make sense of the complex narrative with its references to "La Strada," "The Wizard of Oz," the Greco-Roman myth of sisters Philomela and Procne and the bluegrass-flavored music of the troupe's string band.

After the comics have told their jokes, the dwarfs have finished their tumbling and the petrified man has stared back at the crowd in stoniness, McCree pitches the snake oil of which he himself is an aficionado. Full of booze and blarney, he tells of how he managed to escaped a tribe of warriors with both the secret elixir and his skin. Bates plays the scene at full bray. His uncanny resemblance to a complete jackass is all but inescapable as he bellows bawdy tunes from astride one on his way to reclaim Velada.

Harris, on the other hand, is unusually becalmed as the father tormented by his son's overwhelming grief. Phoenix, in his next to last performance, is convincingly feral as a husband haunted by his lost love and by her ferocious Kabuki-like ghost, both enthusiastically played by Tousey, a Native American actress. Restraint is little in demand under Shepard's direction.

Sometimes, as in Bruce Beresford's film of the Canadian frontier, "Black Robe," the land itself steals the scene -- a golden main beneath whose amber waves lie buried the dreams and bones of good and bad alike.

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