PARK CITY, Utah–Sam Shepard transplants a couple of his famously dysfunctional families to the Old West in “Silent Tongue,” a bizarre, meandering and, finally, maddening mystical oater that will find few partisans. The first Western financed entirely by French money, this hodgepodge of genres, intentions , acting styles and influences doesn’t look to any rosier theatrical prospects than Shepard’s first feature, “Far North.”
The sins of the fathers are distinctly visited upon the sons in this loosely knit yarn, with the characters literally haunted by the ghosts of those they wronged. Result is an unpalatable combination of prairie melodrama, Greek tragedy, Japanese ghost tale and traveling minstrel show, staged with little sense of style and film rhythm.
Opening sequence immediately derails the narrative. The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show is being performed in the middle of nowhere before a sparse audience, and Shepard indulges in a reel’s worth of unfunny, off-putting antics prior to truly embarking on his story.
Richard Harris arrives at the show’s encampment in search of its leader, Alan Bates. A drunken Irish charlatan of the first order, Bates some time back sold Harris his half-Indian daughter Sheila Tousey, who married Harris’ son, River Phoenix. Tousey has since died in childbirth, driving Phoenix to the brink of madness.
Fed up waiting for the deal to be consummated, hoping to cure his son’s delirium, Harris kidnaps Bates’ second daughter, Jeri Arredondo, and takes her back to Phoenix, who is being attacked on a regular basis by the ghost of his dead wife. Bates and his son Dermot Mulroney set out across the plains in pursuit of Arredondo, a trick rider who is Bates’ top attraction, setting up long stretches for blarney-filled ranting by Bates that are endlessly indulged by the writer and actor.
Predictably, it all ends back at the medicine show, although at less leisure than before.
The dialogue is mostly rambling and unmemorable and, in the case of Bates and his brogue-tinged blustering, indecipherable. Nearly all the characters seem to have flipped their wigs long ago, and move quickly from being merely unappealing to thoroughly tiresome.
Shot in eastern New Mexico near Roswell, Irish lenser Jack Conroy’s parched, drab-looking widescreen images feature isolated characters moving across a vast, undifferentiated landscape.
Performances, led by Bates’, are nearly all way over the top. In the end, pic should have taken a cue from its title and cut down on the continuous babble.