A threadbare story and bad gimmicks ruins this debut feature from being anything more than an impressive technical feat.
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s debut feature The Tribe opens with a title card laying out the first of its two gimmicks: the film is performed entirely in sign language, with no subtitles, dubbing, or translation provided. As far as gimmicks go, it’s an intriguing one. Viewers know from the beginning that they’ll be on their own, forced to suss out details based on the inherently physical, non-verbal interactions on-screen. Some people might find themselves intimidated by watching Slaboshpytskiy’s two plus hour slice of deaf-mute miserablism, but surprisingly audiences have been up for the challenge; the film won several awards at Cannes, and amazingly got a US distribution deal from Drafthouse Films—another move that cements Drafthouse’s status as one of the boldest new distributors on the block.
Watching The Tribe, it’s easy to see why people have been so taken with it. Slaboshpytskiy has put together an undeniably impressive directorial debut, but only on a technical level. This brings me to The Tribe’s second gimmick: every scene unfolds through one long, meticulously constructed take, with the camera almost always gliding around its characters. It’s quite a feat to pull off, made all the more remarkable by the fact that Slaboshpytskiy is working with a cast of nonprofessional actors. Whether or not all of this adds up to a good movie is another story.
Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) is a new student at a boarding school who quickly finds himself stranded, with no social circle to join. He soon gets the attention of the popular kids, and in almost no time he’s introduced to their crime ring. Some of it involves theft and bribery, but for the most part the gang of kids pimp out female students at a nearby truck stop. Sergey slowly assimilates himself into the group, and when one of their members dies in an accident, he’s promoted to a higher position. But once Sergey falls in love with one of the escorts (Yana Novikova) he gets brutally ostracized for stepping out of line.
The Tribe’s fundamental problems lie with Slaboshpytskiy’s story. It’s threadbare at best, with plenty of scenes meandering about until the next predictable narrative beat comes into play. Sergey’s story amounts to little, even though, at its core, he goes through an arc that’s been around for ages. He arrives to a new place, falls in with the wrong crowd, falls for the wrong girl, and tries to win her back from the “bad guys” (in this case, a group of mercilessly brutal high schoolers). Slaboshpytskiy’s film could be seen as an interesting blend of a classical tale with an unorthodox style, but there’s a big difference between emulating old, familiar standards, and lazily following them. In The Tribe’s case, its story is more of a placeholder than anything.
So if The Tribe has little to care for in terms of story or character, what else is there? All that’s left is the style, and it doesn’t take long to see through The Tribe as nothing more than a lot of auteurist posturing. Much like last year’s Birdman, The Tribe confuses gimmickry with excellence. Both films use long takes to create a sense of immersion, of watching things unfold in the moment rather than playing out through the construction of montage and editing. What winds up happening is the complete opposite of its intended effect. The thought process turns away from what’s happening on-screen, and goes more towards what’s happening off camera: how elaborate the setup is, how the actors managed to keep it together for such an extended length of time, how many takes it took to nail the scene, or how the camera was able to move without any apparent issues. It’s a distraction, and The Tribe is full of them.
This approach to filmmaking is poisonous. The Tribe could have gotten away with its desire to be nothing more than an ode to the virtues of rehearsal, if it didn’t try to pretend it was anything more than that. But everything about this film screams at viewers to take it seriously, from its gloomy, Eastern European setting to its rigorous form and Haneke-esque approach to violence. It doesn’t take long to get over Slaboshpytskiy’s technical skills, and once the wow factor goes away, there’s little else to take from The Tribe other than how much work went into pulling off so many elaborate scenes. It’s about as artistic as watching Evel Knievel jump a bunch of school buses. I’d rather watch the daredevil stunt than this. At least there’s no bullshit there.