Ukrainan Director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s bleak, daring opus The Tribe arrives in the United States in wide release this month courtesy of reliably adventurous distributors Drafthouse Films, carrying a long trail of controversy and hype in its wake. At least part of this lightning-rod reputation stems from the film’s central conceit: it’s performed entirely by deaf non-actors using Ukrainan sign language, with all global distributors barred from including subtitles or translation of any kind. Paired with the film’s equally distinctive cinematography, which emphasizes naturalistic long takes filmed at medium distance, this creates a truly unique sense of visual rhythm. At once kinetic and hypnotic, the film is unlike much else you’re likely to see in contemporary narrative cinema.
Director: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
Writer: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
Producer: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
Editor: Valentyn Vasyanovych
Cast: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Rosa Babiy, Alexander Dsiadevich, Taroslav Biletskiy, Ivan Tishko, Alexander Osadchiy, Alexander Sidelnikov, Alexander Panivan
Premiere: May 21, 2014 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: July 17, 2015
US Distributor: Drafthouse Films
The story, it turns out, is fairly simple. A young man arrives at a boarding school for the deaf, where he is quickly drawn into the orbit of a clique of belligerent delinquents. He’s first bullied by this gang-like cohort, then initiated into their ranks, and before long he finds himself drawn deeper into their array of criminal activities, assuming increasing authority and manifesting ever more aggression. Slavishly obeying this type of storyline’s familiar beats, he winds up in over his head, with tragic results.
And, well, that’s about it. The film grants its characters limited psychological depth, preferring instead to wallow in a series of mounting shocks. First come the scenes of the protagonist and his gang trafficking female fellow students, and the film veers into more cynical, self-satisfied bleakness—including a grotesque depiction of a backroom abortion that serves as little more than a sadistic spectacle, a repellant rape sequence, and a climax of ever-escalating violence.
All the while, the characters serve largely as ciphers and symbols, never granted any interiority even though the film’s actors are demonstrably up to the task — each of them evinces remarkable expressiveness and presence throughout the film. Slaboshpytskiy, instead, remains committed not only to his directorial gambit, but to the dark vision of human nature he’s trying to portray. In doing so, he squanders a great deal of the potential opened up by the film’s novel formal choices, and as with most films that invest heavily in shock value while completely disregarding humor, The Tribe’s gratuitous pile-up of stomach-turning moments winds up feeling more rote than taboo.
As such, The Tribe compares unfavorably with likeminded works, such as the Austrian director Ulrich Siedl’s Paradise trilogy. Siedl’s trio of beautiful, emotionally raw films also stake out transgressive and disturbing territory—touching on sex tourism and colonial power; faith, carnality, and self-harm; and pedophilia—but never loses its uncompromising sense of intellectual curiosity, dramatic irony, and even, at times, grace and compassion. Shock for shock’s sake can also yield masterful cinema, at least when handled by an appropriately savvy creative eye—see the early films of John Waters, which aim to appall, but come armed with copious helpings of levity and brio.
The Tribe, by comparison, may be a curious, peculiar experiment, visually compelling and at times dazzling (and surely worth seeing for its remarkable formal daring alone), but its novel stylistic set-up rapidly wears thin, because it becomes little more than a device to distance its characters from any narrative depth, transfiguring them into cruel caricatures. Ultimately, Slaboshpytskiy’s film accomplishes little more than the creation of a unique visual world drained of any psychological substance.