A desolate supernatural Western, this will pick up most attention for being the last film River Phoenix completed before his death, an eerie quality compounded by its gloomy subject matter - a moody dissertation on death, the afterlife and insurmountable grief. Despite such dark overtones, Shepard's resolutely uncommercial movie - based on a Japanese ghost story - has much to stand up and shout about: great acting, great atmosphere, and extraordinary landscapes. The problem is that so much of it borders on the incomprehensible.
A travelling circus, full of freaks and clowns, traipses through the open plains of Montana, led by a drunken old Irish sot (Bates), trying to fob off his useless remedies on gullible Indians. They happen upon a weather-beaten plainsman (Harris) desperate to buy Bates' half-Indian daughter. She, he hopes, will provide much-needed solace for his distraught son (Phoenix) who is wailing for his dead wife. Her ghost haunts the sun-scorched tree where Phoenix has hidden her body, screaming to be set free and fly to the Happy Hunting Grounds.
Things soon descend into a confused storm of natural and supernatural family traumas and the film's narrative is swept away over the horizon. Yet, like few other Westerns, this superbly evokes an era populated by shambling derelicts fighting the natives, the hostile environment and each other in an effort to survive. 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.