It seems superfluous to use character names when discussing the story of The Tribe as we never learn what the character names are as an audience. The Tribe is a movie told completely in sign language. There are no subtitles, voiceovers, or coherent spoken words through the entire movie's length of just over two hours. The sign language is mostly unique to its Ukrainian roots, so even usual sign language experts are isolated from the characters. There is no music, although there is stunning use of diegetic sound and the sound design is amongst the best I've experienced.
Despite appearances however, The Tribe is not about the deaf community. There is certainly a parallel to be drawn here in the inclusive language of gangs and the foreign world they represent. As we struggle to find our footing in the narrative of the movie, we're also navigating the tiers and nebulous code of a boarding school crime world. Sergey, the main character, is a new student to a deaf boarding school -- either transferred there or shuttled from another school for unsavory reasons, as is indicated by the school administration's distaste at his entrance. Although he starts with the audience's natural sympathetic dispensation as the protagonist, he quickly shows himself to be of an even more malevolent character than the school ringleaders that take him in. When he's initiated and first tested by being thrown into a brawl with other boys, he breaks code and caliber by tearing off one of their ears. He shows himself time and again throughout the movie to be of a different cut than the other boys, who admittedly enact acts of primal violence and act as pimps whilst dealing out their classmates as prostitutes to parked truckers at night, but show allegiance to each other. Sergey, however, acts within no moral code or loyalty -- buying the sexual favors of one of his classmate prostitutes who is already "going out" with another gang member, mindlessly bashing and destroying the home of his teacher even after he's procured the money he's looking for, and especially in the movie's vicious ending, which involves him smashing in the heads of four boys as they sleep with their respective bedside drawers. His nature is to not think of the future -- not of his own, nor of his "girlfriend" whom he can't fathom wanting a better life -- but to completely obliterate.
There's certainly artistic merit in director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's feature film debut. The premise for this movie sounds like a hipster art film's wet dream, but he's crafted a movie that has effectively created a whole new plateau. Not to say that all movies should be done in sign language, but it certainly has changed how an artist can communicate in the film medium and how opaque or transparent intentions need to be to convey their message. The Tribe has a shockingly low 39 takes total throughout the whole film -- most of the film shot with stationary long takes or with a smoothly tracking camera that completely obliterates the relevancy argument of a handheld shaky cam to contrive reality. If long takes are cinema's best way to truly capture genuine action as it unfolds, Slaboshpitsky's method allows for uninterrupted action which gives the film an almost voyeuristic quality. The question is though, is it too much? I don't mean The Tribe has scenes that follow characters meandering for hours without purpose other than to make us aware of how concrete time is for the characters in a way that puts them on a plain with the viewers. There are several long takes in the movie that are arguably too explicit -- you keep wondering when and hoping that the camera will cut away now, now, now and instead it keeps rolling, keeping a static, emotionless watch over brutal sex scenes, an abortion, and other violent acts.
Is there merit in these explicit long takes? Blue is the Warmest Color had similar criticisms with its sex scenes that last eons. But there's more wiggle room in a movie whose first lines are "Will I always digress?" and which spends long scenes just watching the protagonist chew on her spaghetti noodles. If we spend as much time with her in the mundane, why not spend as much time in all the other aspects of her life? The Tribe has no such explanation for its digressions into its visual cruelty. It slams the viewer with brutality relentlessly and with more frequency as the movie continues, not caring to show us anything else. It's interesting to think of all the characters existing in a cone of silence that insulates them. As an audience, we cringe at every smash of glass as Sergey maliciously destroys the home of a man he's just bludgeoned in the head. Sergey has no such moral or aural compunctions. One of the subtle moments of the movie is when the group is celebrating the mugging of a stranger by popping a champagne bottle, and Sergey's quick cursory glance at the cork's trajectory is the only reaction the group gives to what is usually a startling sound.
What was Slaboshpitsky's purpose? Even as I sat in the film, growing more upset with each scene and thinking that there couldn't possibly be redemption for this movie, it admittedly has enough artistic sensibilities to compel a watcher to wonder at the director's intent. And does it justify taking advantage of the audience by exposing them to such scenes of brutality? I would argue that such cruelty is meaningless. It's not artistic, nor does it have realistic merit, and there's nothing to be said for a movie that would make the viewer desire to shut down. This is not a movie decrying violence or the corruption of boarding schools or the frenetic joy and harsh violence of media. It simply lingers on merciless visual images that are only heightened by the fact that the audience is funneling a hyper visual awareness in an unconscious effort to maneuver a movie without aural dialogue. There's something profoundly disturbing about a movie where the only time we hear a character verbally express their emotions other than a sharp burst is the uncompromising sobs we hear from a girl during and after her abortion. There's no meaning to the wreckage we witness and inhabit in The Tribe. The film's purpose seems to be to shock us more than anything else.
I've already said the Slaboshpitsky pushed the envelope artistically in one direction, but he's also opened a new door in cinema that I'm not willing to go. Perhaps I expose myself as a film plebeian by admitting I want purpose behind art. The Tribe is realistically and unflinchingly conveyed, and perhaps the fact that there is no point to its violence is indeed the point...but I have no desire to be led by the hand by a director that feels the need to enforce the point of no point in this manner. I don't need a Pixar message or narrative for a film. I do need to trust that there is value in what is being shared.