Enough with the Rehashing of how River Phoenix, 23, overdosed on cocaine and heroin last Halloween outside the Viper Room, in L.A. Either Phoenix is reduced to another drug casualty for the just-say-no crowd to duck over, or he's romanticized into pinup martyrdom – a James Dean for the '90s. Phoenix's talent and memory deserve better. He was an actor, an uncommonly gifted one.
Evidence of that can be found in Silent Tongue, a haunting tale of love, death and shame in the Old West. It is Phoenix's penultimate performance: The last film he completed, Peter Bogdanovich's sweet but silly Thing Called Love, went swiftly to video. Silent Tongue, a mesmerizing mess written and directed by Sam Shepard (no acting this time), is a more apt swan song. It shows Phoenix at his ambitious best.
Silent Tongue is not a great film, but it aspires to be. You can feel Shepard trying to cut through conventions and get at something deep-rooted, vital and affecting. Phoenix had that same striving quality. From the startling first impression he made in 1986 as the hard-case kid in Rob Reiner's Stand by Me to his equally startling portrayal of a male hustler five years later in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, Phoenix took on each role as a springboard to truth instead of stardom.
Phoenix stood apart from his peers. When they acted in westerns, the movies were mostly Young Guns vanity productions. Leave it to Phoenix to choose Silent Tongue, a demanding chunk of Shepard frontier poetry that shuns pretty-boy posturing. The first sight of Phoenix comes as a shock. In filthy clothes, with cracked lips and a crazed stare, he sits under a tree with a rifle, keeping guard by a fire. You can hear the flames crackle against the cold air. Seeing a bird in flight, he shoots it, rips off its feathers and climbs the tree where he places the prize plumage on the rotting corpse of an Indian woman tied to the branches. He then bends tenderly to kiss her, his eyes burning with grief.
It's an astounding opening scene, mysterious and rending. Shepard films the scene without words, but it's doubtful he could have done it as tellingly without Phoenix, who infuses the role with a uniquely raw intensity. Gradually, the film fills in more details about this obsessed character. His name is Talbot Roe, the backward son of Prescott Roe (Richard Harris), an earnest plainsman who will do anything for his only child. Last spring, the elder Roe bought his son a wife, the half-breed Awbonnie (Sheila Tousey), in exchange for three horses. The seller was Awbonnie's Irish father, Eamon McCree (Alan Bates), the perpetually soused proprietor of the Kickapoo Traveling Medicine Show. A few weeks earlier, Awbonnie died in childbirth (the baby with her), leaving Talbot dazed from sorrow and his father determined to buy him a replacement wife, Awbonnie's sister, Velada (Jeri Arredondo). "He's fallen even deeper inside himself," Prescott tells McCree. "He refuses to eat or speak. He just stands over her corpse like a lost soul."
Harris gives a touching and unusually understated performance. Bates, who could have hammed to the hilt, finds a twisted wit in McCree. "I am not a bottomless pit of daughters," he tells Roe, though McCree's greed knows no bounds. His son, Reeves (Dermot Mulroney), knows that McCree values money and horseflesh more than him or the two daughters McCree fathered by the Indian woman Silent Tongue (Tantoo Cardinal). When Reeves objects to the inhuman sale of his half sister, his father says, "She's an Indian – they were born to suffer."
In flashbacks, we see Reeves as a child, watching in horror as his father rapes Silent Tongue, so named after her tongue was cut out for lying to a Kiowa chief. Though McCree marries the woman he violates, she eventually deserts him and their daughters to return to her tribe. McCree, tormented by dreams of a vengeful Silent Tongue, hesitates about selling his second daughter. That prompts Prescott to kidnap Valeda to save his son.
In more than 40 plays, including True West, Fool for Love and the Pulitzer Prize winning Buried Child, Shepard has shown a passionate concern for the disintegration of the family and the corruption of the pioneer spirit That concern deepens in Silent Tongue, his second film as a director – following the less successful Far North, in 1988. McCree and his collection of acrobats, fire-eaters and freaks have made a business of hawking illusions. Though Shepard sees the medicine show as symbolic of the snake oil that trespassers like McCree have been selling American Indians, the film's thrust is less political than spiritual. Two clowns, played by Bill Irwin and David Shiner, tell comic ghost stories to the audience with musical accompaniment by the Red Clay Ramblers. But out on the plains, Talbot is living a ghost story for real.
As Talbot keeps watch, the ghost of Awbonnie – a streak of white paint running down her angry face – appears to rebuke him: "You're a dog, a low dog, to tie me here out of your selfish fear of aloneness." Tousey, a Stockbridge-Munsee and Menominee Indian who co-starred with Shepard in Thunderheart, is a fierce wonder in the role. Awbonnie wants Talbot to throw her body in the fire so her spirit can be free. But even when this ghost knocks him down, chokes him, puts a curse on his father and cajoles him to kill himself, Talbot clings tenaciously to what is now only a mound of decomposing flesh.
During rehearsals, Shepard tied Phoenix to Tousey with twine to reinforce the bond he wanted Phoenix to feel. Phoenix rewards him with a performance of almost unbearable poignancy. When Talbot's father and Velada arrive, pursued through Kiowa country by McCree and his son, the ghost also threatens them. It is Prescott who finally breaks his son's hold on Awbonnie and the past. For Roe, who's learned to respect, if not understand, Indian spiritualism, there is hope. For McCree, who sees only banshees on the "demon" plains, there is no absolution.
Shepard has freighted the film with so much metaphoric weight that it threatens to topple over. But as Talbot keeps his lonely vigil – strikingly photographed by Jack Conroy – Shepard gets close to the mythical transcendence he seeks. Talbot, his mind in a fever, finds reality and fantasy sliding into each other until he achieves a kind of peace. It's a perilous journey into letting go, and Phoenix never falters.
Letting go may prove tougher for the actor's admirers. You can't watch Silent Tongue without flashing back to the other 12 films Phoenix made in eight years. There he is as a kid in Stand by Me, smoking, dealing cards and cursing out Corey Feldman. But toughness was always an act with Phoenix. His gift was finding the fragility behind a character's bravado. We remember the comforting arm he put around the frightened Wil Wheaton later in Stand by Me or his tender farewell to Martha Plimpton in Running on Empty or his piercing confession of love to Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho.