When Talbot Roe’s (River Phoenix) half-Indian wife Awbonnie (Sheila Tousey) dies in childbirth, he goes mad with grief and holds vigil over her body in the funeral tree. Prescott Roe (Richard Harris), his father, goes in search of Eamon MacCree (Alan Bates), boss of the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show, a travelling circus of freaks, clowns, and tricksters. Prescott, who had already bought Awbonnie from MacCree, now wants to buy her sister, Valeda, a stunt horse rider, thinking she is the only one who can lift Talbot out of his misery. MacCree’s son, however, opposes the deal, so Prescott runs off with Valeda. At the funeral tree, Awbonnie’s spirit rises from her body and asks Talbot to let her body be devoured by the wild beasts so that her soul can enter the spirit world. He refuses, causing the ghost to rage and demand justice for “Silent Tongue,” Awbonnie and Valeda’s mother.
Sam Shepard, one of the best contemporary American playwrights (Paris, Texas, Fool for Love, Zabriskie Point) and actors (The Right Stuff, Frances, Thunderheart), also establishes his reputation as a great director with Silent Tongue. Like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, he redefines the classic western and lays bare the relationships between the Native Americans and the whites. A brilliant cast gives shape to his vision. Alan Bates (Far from the Madding Crowd, The Go-Between, Secret Friends) is the charlatan of the Medicine Show. Grey eminence Richard Harris (A Man Called Horse, Mutiny on the Bounty, Unforgiven) plays devoted father Prescott. One can also see River Phoenix (Stand By Me, My Own Private Idaho, Indiana Jones, and the Last Crusade) once again as a grieving husband. Sheila Tousey (Thunderheart, Slaughter of the Innocents) is the angry ghost Awbonnie, caught between the dead and the living.