We open on an act of kindness: a woman at a bus stop gives a shy deaf boy detailed directions to his destination. It will be the only instance of generosity in the film. Immediately upon arriving at the grim boarding school for the deaf that serves as the main setting for The Tribe—Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s take-notice debut feature—Sergey (Grygory Fesenko) is hurled into a pit of abuse, criminality, and bone-deep misanthropy. In due course he becomes part of the brutality, mercilessly mugging townspeople and pimping out female classmates to truckers, until even stirrings of love and conscience are expressed with clenched fists.
Slaboshpytskiy’s gambit is to thrust us into the domain of the deaf by eliminating the spoken word and withholding subtitled translation for the flurried sign language, making this a truly and pointedly silent movie. While this keeps the viewer forever on the outlands of understanding, and suspended in an uneasy realm of muted, marginalized sound, what fills the breach is all too easy to discern. Comprised of a string of mobile, highly choreographed long takes, the film is immersive without being psychologically nuanced, depending entirely on constant, bluntly legible action. That tack ultimately undoes the promise of the conceit, such that instead of engaging with the silence we’re constantly anticipating its disruption, primed for the crunching blows and dehumanizing horrors that punctuate a familiar language of cinematic hell.