‘The Tribe’ (2015) Movie Review

The Tribe movie review

Grigoriy Fesenko in The Tribe

Photo: Drafthouse Films

I’m not sure I see the point to The Tribe. Writer/director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy‘s story begins with Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), a young teen entering his first day at a boarding school for the deaf. He immediately falls into a crowd of hooligans dealing in drugs and prostituting out two of the school’s young girls only to devolve into… what? I really don’t know. Utilizing no spoken dialogue, the film sticks 100% to the use of sign language without subtitles and it’s a gimmick that only proves cinematically intriguing for the first few minutes, after that we’re left looking for a reason, trying to decipher the character’s hand gestures, attempting to make sense of the story enough to look for any sort of deeper meaning.

Is it saying something about language? Perhaps it’s saying something about how we take such things as hearing for granted? Are Ukrainian boarding schools for the deaf a cause for concern and this is shedding light on the situation? What? What is the purpose of this film’s creation and methodology or is it merely an exercise in futility?

To understand the broad strokes of what’s going on isn’t too difficult, though you will be wondering throughout most of the film’s running time if you actually have entirely grasped what’s taking place. Why this band of droogs or “tribe” has decided to invite Sergey — Grigoriy Fesenko playing a meek outsider, looking something like a slightly plumper Michael Cera — into their fold isn’t entirely clear, but invited he is and immediately finds himself in the midst of a drug exchange… or I believe something to that effect.

He’s given a place to stay, but seems to frequently find himself with suitcase in hand, shuffling from one place to the next. We’re witness to the prostitution of two girls at a local truck stop, both of which (I’m assuming again) appear to try to be obtaining fake Italian passports and one of which becomes the object of Sergey’s affection.

There’s a hazing process to Sergey’s initiation and one scene in-particular is one of the worst choreographed “fights” I have ever seen caught on film. I was left to ask myself, “Why are they fake fighting? Or are they really fighting and… why?” To Slaboshpytskiy’s credit he doesn’t attempt to hide mistakes with editing in this sequence. Like pretty much every other shot in the film, this scene is viewed from a distance, part of a larger tracking shot and part of a single take. After all, he doesn’t have to depend on dialogue to tell his story, so there’s no need for reverse shots, over-the-shoulder shots or even close-ups… or so he believes.

Lest you were to wonder how important language here actually is, Slaboshpytskiy’s decision to keep the audience at a distance, leaving us to be observers only, suggests language isn’t important at all. It’s no different than if you were on the street and overheard fractions of a conversation in the distance. You might be able to piece together bits of what the people were talking about, but you’d never have a clear idea. Same goes here. Body language, facial ticks and other gestures would be all you’ve have to go by if you were hoping to figure out what’s really going on. The process of doing such with The Tribe is not only tedious, but by the end it seems rather pointless.

Where The Tribe ultimately excels is in its filmmaking. I can’t discount the camerawork and set ups, each scene is so clearly constructed and thought out it’s impressive (outside of that one “fight” sequence), it doesn’t work for an entire film. These are shots you find typically making up small portions of a movie, adding impact, here they just present another long take because Slaboshpytskiy doesn’t need to focus on character, his focus is on moments and the moments aren’t intriguing enough to carry the weight of a feature film.

The narrative does little to progress beyond the presentation of bad behavior and Sergey’s response and ultimate participation in what’s taking place. His meek character is really the only soft spot in the film as everyone around him aggressively signs and physically pushes and shoves their will on others. Authority figures are either non-existent or participants in the debauchery, all of which escalates to a pummeling of senses in the final act as an illegal abortion, rape and senseless violence cap off a film that brings to mind the likes of Vera Drake, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days and something akin to the fire extinguisher moment in Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible without the extreme close-ups but all of the aural intentions.

Sound, as it just so happens, is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of The Tribe. It’s hardly a coincidence considering the circumstances and it’s what you really begin to focus on, not only among the ear-curdling screams and skull-crunching final moments, but during the tracking shots in the snow and the sheer idea that someone wasn’t going to be awoken in the middle of the night, no matter how much noise you made. That said, during some of those tracking shots I couldn’t help but begin to wonder, “Is that the character’s footsteps I’m hearing or the cameraman’s?” You become so aware of the filmmaking it’s a hindrance. The gimmick itself becomes the focal point.

Slaboshpytskiy doesn’t need to concern himself with traditional filmmaking edits and, as I’ve already said, keeps the camera at a distance for most of the time and cuts are extremely limited. However, this also means scenes need to play out longer than necessary to get the full gist of what’s taking place. Additionally, scenes that might otherwise never even make the final cut of a film with spoken dialogue (or even a silent film with inter titles) remain, slowing things down to a crawl.

Had a synopsis for this film not been made available to me I’m pretty sure I still would have put the majority of the pieces of The Tribe together, but I would have probably cared even less. I’m still not entirely sure I understood all that was going on and would have been even less sure without confirmation from a plot synopsis. As I’ve said, this suggests to me story isn’t nearly as important as to what we are expected to feel while watching this movie and other than boredom and disgust, I didn’t feel much. I’m sure for some this will be an enthralling experience, an exciting one, but the filmmaking itself simply draws too much attention to itself for me to ever become fully invested in what I was watching and the narrative didn’t do nearly enough to draw me in.