At its base, The Tribe works off of a gimmick, albeit one that has never been employed this effectively. Writer/director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy dials it all the way down with his tale of youth-gone-wild at a school for the deaf. He tells the entire story through sign language, without a subtitle to be seen or a spoken word to be heard throughout its two-hour-plus runtime. There isn’t even a score to guide us along, and any cuts merely indicate a scene change. Slaboshpytskiy opts to let the camera linger on his cast of ne’er-do-wells, occasionally following them through a silent, slow burn of a movie that pays off in an explosive climax.
We meet our young hero (?) Serhiy (Grygoriy Fesenko) in the Ukraine as he arrives at a school for the hearing impaired. Before long, he joins a gang of students that go beyond bullying into the real world of criminal delinquency. They drink and peddle drugs, beat and rob locals, and even pimp out a pair of female classmates at a nearby truck yard. Their leader is King (Alexander Osadchiy), who we discover is being assisted by school administrators in his illegal activities. Complications arrive when Sergey falls for Anya (Yana Novikova), who happens to be one of the girls he is pimping.
A reminder: This is all explained to us by action and sign language. The names of the characters are never alluded to in the movie and can only be obtained by sticking around for the closing credits. The loudest noise you will hear from a human mouth is when Sergey vomits alcohol. In a summer full of movies with overdone exposition, Slaboshpytskiy’s movie proves that actions can speak louder than words. We get to explore the difficulties of being deaf in a world that readily accepts and expects it in a way we rarely, if ever, see in cinema. These students are driven and more than capable, even if their means to an end are less than altruistic.
The movie’s faults can be found in some of the staging. When shooting a movie as a series of long takes, not everyone will earn its lengthy runtime. There are some gratuitous sex scenes of the Larry Clark variety, as well as overlong sequences of rummaging through workshops and filling out Visa documents. The flip side to this is that when these takes hit, they hit hard (i.e. an illegal abortion procedure). The Tribe is just as brutal in its depiction of casual depravity as it is in its bursts of extreme violence.
In the end, the film transcends its gimmick. Slaboshpytskiy’s use of sign language kickstarts a unique piece of storytelling, filling it with complicated characters dealing with fitting in, falling in love, and in some cases losing themselves in the process. It’s an introduction to a world that isn’t new, but one that’s largely unexplored by hearing people. And if you can make it past the final five minutes of The Tribe without wincing, more power to you.