Review: ‘The Tribe’

'The Tribe' (Drafthouse Films)
‘The Tribe’ (Drafthouse Films)
Provocative, spellbinding sequences alternate with extended, exasperating scenes in The Tribe, a maddening yet essential cinematic experience.

Written and directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, the film received instant notoriety because it is presented entirely in sign language — to be more precise, a visual dialect common in Ukraine — and no sub-titles are provided. All the characters are deaf, or presented as such, and it is sometimes frustratingly difficult to figure out what, exactly, is happening in certain scenes, and what is being communicated between the characters.

This is markedly different from the silent film era, or more recent “silent” efforts, such as the family-friendly Shaun the Sheep Movie, which by coincidence also opens in Dallas this week. The Tribe stubborngly resists the idea that there is any such thing as a universal language. While the thrust of the conversations eventually becomes clear within each sequence, there’s no doubt that audiences who do not understand this particular dialect of sign language are mising out on, at minimum, most of the nuances and, at times, the main point of individual scenes.

At other times, however, it’s more than obvious that the filmmaker is simply toying with audience expectations. As one example, a particular scene is presented at a distance with an absolute minimum of clues as to what’s going; when the meaning becomes clear, it proves to be a rather pointless enactment of a bureacratic procedure.

On the flip side of that, Slaboshpytskiy is a visual artist. A number of scenes begin with static shots that are held nearly to the point of boredom before anything out of the ordinary happens. (And, as noted, often without much idea about the true nature of the conversational exchanges) When the camera is moved, it’s always done gracefully, with the point of following what the characters are doing next.

The universe Slaboshpytskiy has created is a narrow one, even more tightly focused than the world of the deaf. As suggested by the English language title, the story revolves around a tribe of angry youth involved in criminal activity. Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), a teenage boy, arrives at a boarding school for deaf children and is quickly drafted into the gang, whose antics range from mean and prankish to wild and debauched, and onward into violent and brutal activity. Sergey never resists, suggesting that either he was previously involved in such nefarious practices or is inclined to do so anyway.

Sergey steadily moves up the ranks, soon getting involved with protecting and promoting the gang’s schoolgirl prostitutes — both of them — as they make their rounds at a local truck stop. Sergey pays one of them to have sex with him and instantly falls for her, which leads to increasing conflict and dangerous consequences for him and the gang.

The Tribe is an intense, demanding film, and not always easy to watch; there’s a lot of slapping and punching of young people by other young people, which is disturbing. One can’t help but wonder: what happened to all the adults? This is a harsh, pitiless movie, filled with harsh and pitiless people. It raises more questions than it answers and is sure to lodge in the memory of most viewers.

The film opens on Friday, August 7 for a limited engagement at the Texas Theater in Oak Clifff and the Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson.