The Tribe is, for all intents and purposes, a silent film. It features no discernible dialogue, no music, and what soundtrack there is remains ambient. The loudest sounds in the entire film are the crashing of metal drawers being pulled from their shelves and the piteous cries of a young woman during an illicit medical procedure which is performed without anesthesia. There is no speaking apart from incomprehensible whispers that the non-professional deaf actors occasionally issue while furiously signing in the purposefully-obscure Ukrainian sign language they use, none of which is subtitled. It may seem strange to dwell on the soundtrack when discussing a film that ostensibly eschews that entire portion of the modern filmic toolbox, but the lack of sound is no mere product of the film being about deaf characters: it serves to impress on the audience that in The Tribe’s world, communication is all but impossible.
Each scene in the film is a single take, shot with a Steadicam that is masquerading as being hand-held. This means that there are no more than two or three dozen cuts over the course of The Tribe’s two-plus hour run time, each one representing a significant change in time and place. The story is simple: we follow a young Ukrainian man as he arrives at a school for the deaf outside Kiev and quickly falls in with, to put it lightly, a bad crowd. The administrators are either absent or complicit in the deeds of the titular gang, who run a number of criminal enterprises ranging from brutal muggings to truck stop-based prostitution.
These scenes play out in real-time, during which we, the audience, are slowly convinced of the characters’ intentions. For example, in one lengthy take, we are shown two girls changing out of their day clothes and into almost comically exaggerated prostitute outfits in the back of a rumbling van before watching as they and their pimp get out at a truck stop and walk from vehicle to vehicle peddling their wares. We return to the truck stop numerous times, as the protagonist works his way up the ranks to the position of pimp. He eventually falls in love with one of the prostitutes, a relationship that drives the majority of the film’s plot. The couple share two lengthy, graphic sex scenes before the girl earns the dubious honor of receiving the most intimate on-screen abortion since Enter the Void.
The Tribe demands the audience’s attention through a strange kind of withholding. Without being able to understand what the characters are saying to one another, we are required to pay close attention to the actors’ facial expressions, lines of sight, and blocking. Keeping track of the film’s few characters is never difficult, and the relationships between them are simple, if almost universally unpleasant. From the standpoint of cinematography, the film is a masterpiece, featuring beautifully composed shots that present a landscape reminiscent of Gomorrah’s rundown Naples: the only colors apart from grey and brown are the stark blue institutional halls and the sprays of bright graffiti that cover nearly every exterior wall.
Film has a unique capacity for engaging the audience’s sympathy for characters. Kubrick used this exact quality to great effect in A Clockwork Orange, deploying a mixture of voiceover and music to get the audience to identify with a truly deplorable protagonist before putting both the character and the audience through an emotional journey exploring the nature of evil. The Tribe’s writer/director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky achieves a similar effect in reverse, drawing in the audience by presenting his protagonist as an outsider who only achieves social acceptance through his immoral actions. Slaboshpitsky dares us to sympathize with his protagonist, who seems devoid of any morality beyond a very Shakespearian desire to be with his beloved. By the film’s final scenes, each of which outdoes the last in terms of brutality, we are shown that the character we have supposedly been rooting for is just as violent and selfish as those around him. Whether this is a fall from grace or a revelation of his true self is ambiguous. Unlike A Clockwork Orange, The Tribe presents no context for its immorality, instead showing us a world where there are no alternatives to nihilistic violence, no efforts to mitigate cruelty other than as a means of harnessing its results.
Likewise, The Tribe makes no effort to represent the realities of life as a deaf person in the larger world. Apart from lamps taking the place of school bells and doorbells and two brief instances in which we are shown deaf characters interacting with characters who are unable to communicate via sign language, no reference is made to the apparent fact that these characters exist in a world where others can hear. A plausible argument could be made that the film takes place in a world where everyone is deaf. Interestingly, many of the acts of violence depicted rely on the fact that no one involved is able to hear: there are multiple scenes in which people are snuck up behind and knocked unconscious, and at one point a girl is raped in her bed while her roommate sleeps not ten feet away. In fact, the shocking final scene functions solely because everyone involved shares this disability. In the film, the inability to hear and speak functions as a metaphor for the lack of the capacity to communicate. Remaining with the Kubrick comparisons, these characters are only a step above the ape-men from the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of their ability to communicate with one another, and all of their actions are similarly efficient and predatory. The film’s title, arguably the only word communicated to the audience, reinforces this primitivity: these characters are indeed members of a tribe that recognizes only the crude commerce of violence and lust.
All of which adds up to an utterly desolate worldview. Once the visceral impact of the final act has worn off (which might take a while), we are left to consider the story’s overall arc, which begins and ends with the protagonist experiencing two very different types of isolation: at first, the familiar feeling of being an outsider, and at the end, a solitude resulting from a violent and purposeful disassociation. The Tribe calls into question man’s very ability to cohabit with his fellows, positing a world in which people come together only for their immediate mutual benefit and dissolve into violence at the first sign of divergence. This world is devoid of communication, of compromise, and, ultimately, of human decency. Man is here reduced to his base instincts.
Near the end of the film, we watch the protagonist craft a hammer in wood shop class only to use the implement to bludgeon his wood shop teacher in the very next scene. In The Tribe, even the legacy of the older generations is reduced to cruelty. In a world where no one can speak, violence is the only form of interaction.