THE TRIBE Review: Sleight of Hand
Sometimes it’s hard to avoid getting over-enthused about a film. Watch enough movies and follow enough about the film industry on social media and something is bound to whip normal interest into a serious lather. Such was the case for me and The Tribe. A unique combination of factors worked together to make this happen: it’s a Ukrainian film (I’m Ukrainian), it found great success on the festival circuit, and it has a clever conceit in that the film is shot entirely in sign language and without voiceover or subtitles.
This last bit was doubly exciting for me because I love a film that presents a viewing challenge, and the last time a dialogue-free film challenged me, it was J.C. Chandor‘s sensational All Is Lost, a film that ranked high on my Best Of 2013 list. It’s no surprise the Ukrainian film has been my most anticipated of the year.
Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) is the new kid at a boarding school for deaf teens. As is the case with any new kid, regardless of school or physical challenge, Sergey is put to the test by his new classmates in ways that are so familiar they seem almost comforting – like rites of passage. He’s denied a bunk his first night. He has his lunch taken from him in the cafeteria. He’s tricked into entering a dorm room where he surprises an unsuspecting pair of half-naked girls. He’s ganged up on in a fight (but he more than holds his own against the other boys).
Having passed all tests, Sergey is welcomed into the school’s fold – a fold he quickly learns is rotten with theft, violence, and prostitution (those two half-naked girls). Sergey does well in the fold, though, unflinchingly contributing to the criminal cause run by a corrupt teacher. He does well, that is, until love enters the picture. That’s when things change.
As debut features go, writer/director Myroslav Slaboshpitsky swings for the fences with The Tribe. It takes an incredible amount of confidence (audacity?) for any filmmaker, let alone a rookie, to write a story about tragically corrupt youth, set it in a deaf community, and present it on film without dialogue, voiceover, or subtitle. If only swinging for the fences guaranteed clearing those fences. Slaboshpitsky might take a mighty cut, but he barely makes contact.
The heart of the problem hits about 15-20 minutes into the 92-minute film – right around the time the viewer settles into interpreting the motions and emotions of the characters: there isn’t much of a story to it. There are a few loose threads – the crime operation led by a teacher and staffed by students, the relationship between Sergey and teen prostitute Anna (Yana Novikova), and Sergey’s rise and fall (grandiose terms, but still) in the criminal organization – but they aren’t nearly developed enough to sustain the film once the wow-factor becomes familiar. Instead, these threads only act as threadbare excuses to repeat shocking actions and gradually increase the shock value of those actions. The physical violence becomes more intense, the prostitution becomes more graphic, and Sergey and Anna have something going on so they are shown getting it on (several times).
The ending is so stunning, the escalation of violence so shocking, it strains credulity and feels like it doesn’t belong.
From a technical perspective, Slaboshpitsky has a filmmaking style that is a patience-tester. He’s a fan of long, fluid, edit-free shots of (no closer than) medium range. This approach allows the viewer to be something of an “ultimate observer” – always close enough to the action but never in it, with the added realism of having no multiple angles or quick cuts. It’s very much a “you are there” experience akin to first-person POV video games.
The problem is that the perpetual distance prohibits any chance of a connection between the viewer and the action onscreen; only the most shocking of moments create that connection, but that degree of intensity can’t be maintained, so ultimately the link is lost. The long, cut-free shots also ensure the viewer sees everything that happens within the line of sight – even if most of that everything is tedious. How many drawers must we watch Sergey open and dump as he looks for a victim’s cash, or how many semi-truck windows must we watch Sergey knock on before a driver responds and takes a hooker, and so on? The answer is “so many, it feels like all of them,” which makes for a laborious watch.
The film is not without merit. It takes skill to execute a sign language-only film. Also, the absence of subtitles makes for a better viewing experience; subtitle text can be distracting as part of the greater filed of vision, and subtitles can specifically draw eyes away from important action or details on the screen.
These things, plus one harrowing scene late in the film involving a surgical procedure, prevent the film from becoming a complete loss.
A feature film with no traditional dialogue or subtitles might be a technical and artistic feat, but it is still a film that is missing a critical component. The lack of that component all but demands compensation in another area of the film. In this case, that area would have to be story, and the story here simply doesn’t work.
Feeling like an acting class was challenged to make a student film with no dialogue, The Tribe, in less than two hours, went from my Most Anticipated Film to my Biggest Disappointment of 2015.