There's nothing like "The Tribe," the astounding debut feature from Ukrainian writer-director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy about a mob operating within a crumbling school for the deaf. One need not read it as a metaphor for the director's homeland to appreciate the movie as a tour de force.
"The Tribe" is a vortex of filmmaking style and humanity's darker impulses, during which you may find yourself clawing the seat to resist its severe, sometimes exceedingly graphic pull. But denying its power is tough. A former crime reporter, Slaboshpytskiy has made one of the most unusual and disturbing films about criminality of the new century.
Before the first image appears, the movie warns you of its gimmick: The characters all communicate in sign language, with no subtitling or narration. As raw as that deal may seem between an ambitious director and foreign-film audiences normally unfazed by language barriers, Slaboshpytskiy uses it to free up his visual storytelling and direction of actors, which is nearly always illuminative.
It also fosters an abiding appreciation for the gesticulative art of the all-deaf performers, whose interactions — whatever the emotion at hand — have the expressiveness of choreography. Be assured, there's no lack of narrative clarity here, only the persistent sense that nothing cheerful is in store.
Our entry into this hermetic world is a sturdy but quiet (believe me, that makes sense) new kid (Grigoriy Fesenko). He's immediately set upon by a few brash male students who initiate him into their off-hours exploits, which include robbery and assault. Soon he's part of the secret ring's prostitution detail, brokering the sexual services of two female classmates to truck drivers at an overnight lot for rigs. When he falls for one of them, an energetic, tough-as-nails blond (Yana Novikova), the complications that arise mutate the first half of the movie's eye-catching, queasily thrilling tale of gang recruitment into a merciless dissection of nurtured brutality and group alienation. It all bleakly unravels into a horrifically violent conclusion that, one realizes, could happen only in a soundless realm.
"The Tribe" is marked not just by wordlessness — the ambient sound makes it not truly silent — but by Slaboshpytskiy's mesmerizing long takes. Each one is a mini-drama of movement, suspense and revelation, whether tracking characters around the rooms, hallways and grounds of the school, or parked in one spot for a scene of mischief, conversation, explicit sex, or, late in the film, an excruciating real-time abortion. It's shooting style, patient yet predatory, that feels one part Eastern European directors' penchant for protractedly gloomy tableaux, one part Brian De Palma in voyeur mode, with a dash of Martin Scorsese articulating the kinetics of gangster life.
The film is made up of only 34 shots — fewer cuts than Michael Bay would use to film a commercial. But stitched together, the effect is bracingly alchemic in connecting us to a corrosive world, and characters for whom the mobility of sight is everything. Few first films have so confidently executed such a formalist approach to visuals and communication.
It must be said, though, that Slaboshpytskiy's often brilliant movie — inspired by stories heard during his journalism days — is not for everyone, which is usually true of punches to the gut. Though its portrait of an outsider community, one rarely depicted apart from the patronizing lens of disability dramas, is radically stimulating, it's a tone swing in the other direction that will prove too grim for some. These aren't voiceless people. The totality of their desperate, brutal actions is as direct and resounding as a scream.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes
Playing: Cinefamily, Los Angeles