YEAR: 1993

DIRECTOR:  Sam Shepard

US PREMIERE: February 4, 1994

Plot Summary

Silent Tongue (Tantoo Cardinal) is a mute Kiowa who is raped by Eamon McCree (Alan Bates), the owner of the Kickapoo Traveling Medicine Show. Eamon attempts to make up for his crime by marrying her, hoping for forgiveness. Instead, Silent Tongue enacts a bitter retribution through her two daughters, Awbonnie  and Velada. Awbonnie, as the film begins, has already died, but her grieving husband Talbot (Phoenix) refuses to let her go, dragging around her corpse. To assuage Talbot, his father Prescott (Richard Harris) sets out to purchase Velada from Eamon, thinking that only Awbonnie's sister can replace her in Talbot's eyes. But Velada's half-brother Reeves (Dermot Mulroney) protests the attempted transaction. As a result, Prescott kidnaps Velada and flees, with not only Reeves and Eamon chasing him, but also Awbonnie's ghost


Richard HARRIS - Prescott Roe
Sheila TOUSEY - Awbonnie / Ghost
Alan BATES - Eamon McCree
River PHOENIX - Talbot Roe
Dermot MULRONEY - Reeves McCree
Jeri ARREDONDO - Velada McCree
Tantoo CARDINAL - Silent Tongue

Release Dates

Sundance Film Festival - January 28, 1993
Native American Film Festival - November 1993
London Film Festival - November 15, 1993
US Release - February 1, 1994
Publicity Stills & Posters

Todd McCarthy, Variety:
"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."

Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer:
"Something deep and allegorical could be going on here, but 'Silent Tongue' is at once so overwrought and desert-dull that you can't be bothered to investigate."

Caryn James, NY Times:
"'Silent Tongue' deals with mysticism, history and the kind of profound family tangle that echoes his best plays/ But while 'Silent Tongue' is powerfully connected to Mr. Shepard's dramas, here he truly becomes a filmmaker. He composes eloquent pictures within the vast space of the plains, and uses his images to tell a story layered with meaning."

Moria Reviews:
"What the film needs is a more straightforward director, one who would have opted for the epic shots and probably a more traditional view of ghosts, rather than Shepard’s chiaroscuro dramatic style. There is a good story inside the film but it unfortunately has been buried in the method of telling."

John Petrakis, Chicago Tribune:
"Although 'Silent Tongue' is difficult in places, and chock-full of more symbols than a graduate seminar on Hawthorne, it is a strangely satisfying and challenging piece of work, one that illustrates how elements of cinema, literature and theater can work in tandem, thanks to a recipe that is one part Poe and two parts Shakespeare."

Time Out:
"Writer/director Sam Shepard's western is a curious throwback to the grubby eccentricities of '70s 'revisionist' oaters, laced with brooding mysticism and the playwright's familiar emotional violence. The film is shot in 'Scope, and there's an awful lot of space here. The landscape is so expansive, it seems to have driven its few inhabitants over the edge into drink or despair."

Alvaro Rodriguez, Austin Chronicle:
It's obvious that Shepard has a certain love for his subject, and he has made a compelling film. Like a good yarn, it is strengthened by over-the-top acting from Bates and Phoenix. Harris is remarkably subdued (no “Camelot” speeches here). Tousey as the spirit of Awbonnie is absolutely frightening, her face made up to be half-human, half-monster, and it is her performance that shines brightest."

Empire Magazine:
"With its cache of salt-of-the-earth actors, garrulously defining themselves against the endless plains, and the lean, otherworldly feel, Silent Tongue scores as a rewarding, idiosyncratic venture, even if it does become indecipherably surreal by the end."

Brian J. Dillard,
"This shotgun wedding between Shakespearean tragedy and movie Western would be intriguing if it weren't so hopelessly mannered. The strongest elements are the production design, which evokes a sort of baroque dustbowl frontier, and Jack Conroy's cinematography, which gives the proceedings an appropriately desiccated air."

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone:
"'Silent Tongue' is not a great film, but it aspires to be. You can feel Shepard trying to cut through conventions and get at something deep-rooted, vital and affecting."

Glenn Kenny, EW:
"The lone lure of this supernatural Western is a truly possessed performance by River Phoenix in his last completed role. And while Richard Harris has been doing good work of late, his teaming with fellow Englishman Alan Bates seems to have inspired some recidivist scenery chewing. Auteur Sam Shepard tries mightily but is too inexperienced in the director’s chair to give Silent Tongue's tale of death, revenge, and madness the visual flair it cries out for."

TV Guide:
"Shepard seems to be trying to fashion an American magical realism--one in which ghosts are free to wander among the living, resolving the contradictions of our violent past. But unlike Shepard's best work for the stage, 'Silent Tongue" seems to lack a clear theme and a controlling intelligence. Too often, the mystical mise-en-scene and strange doings are left to speak for themselves, as though Shepard hopes that his film will be assumed to be profound because it is incomprehensible."

Kevin Thomas, LA Times:
"The contributions of cinematographer Jack Conroy, production designer Cary White, costume designer Van Ramsey and composer Patrick O’Hearn couldn’t be more appropriately moody and atmospheric. 'Silent Tongue' has a sophisticated concern for textures and authentic details; this is one Western set in 1873 that doesn’t have 1910 props. In its best moments, Bates’ seedy caravan recalls in its mix of period quaintness and frank sensuality Ingmar Bergman’s tiny traveling circus in 'Sawdust and Tinsel.' Ultimately, however, the title of 'Silent Tongue' becomes ironic for a movie that talks too much."