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Halloweenathon 2023: On the 30th Memorial of River Phoenix’s Death, I Finally Watched His Last Film ‘Silent Tongue’ for the First Time

On the thirty-first day of Halloween: SILENT TONGUE (1993)

Directed by Sam Shepard, Silent Tongue (1993) is a disturbing horror western that shouldn’t have been River Phoenix’s last officially released film. (River’s actual final film, George Sluizer’s Dark Blood, still never got a proper release after it’s limited run in 2012.)

In Silent Tongue River plays Talbot, a grieving young widower at the brink of madness because of the death of his wife Awbonnie (Sheila Tousey). Talbot has forsaken Awbonnie’s Kiowa tradition of burning her corpse, and so her spirit begins first haunting him — and next cursing everyone who treated her life as nothing but transactional. It reminds me a bit of The Crow, but a carnivalesque version with the plot flipped in many ways. And throwing some extra Cormac McCarthy darkness in for good measure when Talbot’s father Prescott (Richard Harris) straight up horse-ropes Awbonnie’s sister Velada (Jeri Arredondo) to help Talbot out of his mental anguish.

I’ve had a copy of this film for decades on VHS and DVD, but haven’t been able to watch it. I decided today was finally the day and now have a digital copy too. Imagine my surprise finally experiencing Silent Tongue on the 30th memorial of River’s death to find a kind of parallel plot in his character’s inability to let go of his wife — and the various spiritual repercussions that come with it — to my own longstanding grief over River’s death. I mean, I’ve even written a whole book about his friend Keanu Reeves and dedicated it to River. And how odd that Dermot Mulroney’s character in Silent Tongue is named Reeves. Weird, right?

River’s role in the film is small, but mighty. He plays completely against type, as an abusive settler colonizer who keeps an Indigenous woman prisoner until she dies in childbirth. And then he refuses to let her spirit cross, his final prolonged acts of violence against her. He’s absolutely committed to the hateful role. He well knew he was not the hero of this story. Incredible final performance. What a gift he was to the world. What an eternal tragedy that he’s gone.

But Silent Tongue is much more than a tale of grief. It’s a story about white colonizers and long overdue consequences for their many levels of violence, including sexual violence and trafficking of Indigenous women. The title itself refers to the name of a Kiowa woman (Tantoo Cardinal) whose tongue was cut out by whites so she may never speak of the brutalities she had or would continue to endure. This is a movie ultimately about women’s revenge. It is not an easy watch for too many reasons. I feel heavy with grief, and am still bawling as I write this. For Indigenous women who continue to be treated with extraordinary levels of barbarity in the USA and elsewhere. And for beloved River, who should still be here. My heart will ache for all of them, forever.

I love you, River. Hug Wendy for me, will you?

✨Funeral pyre/5 stars. Highly recommend if you’d like to know how it feels to have your heart ripped out of your chest for an hour and 45 minutes.✨