Indigenous voices in cinema are, sadly, not often seen nor heard. Which makes Wild Indian, the bleak and unnerving feature debut from Ojibwe filmmaker Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr. that deals with identity, assimilation and the contemporary Native American experience, something to allure your attention. But it also makes it hurt more to see the film miss so many marks. We’re first introduced to Makwa (Phoenix Wilson), a struggling pre-teen in the 1980s who lives in an repressive stretch of middle America with abusive parents, held in the grip of an anger that seems much older than he is. The priest at the local Catholic school that he attends preaches about Cain’s sacrifice, but Makwa doesn’t seem able to understand how to engage with the horrors he inherited and the colonial residue that he lives in, let alone why any sense of responsibility should fall onto him.
It’s one afternoon, while walking through the woods with his only friend Ted-O, that Makwa insists that he doesn’t ever want to return home. So, instead, he picks up the rifle he and Ted-O stole for the latter’s dad and impersonally murders a classmate who happens to be walking nearby. They quietly bury him in the woods, with no one ever caught or telling. The film then jumps to the present, where Ted-O (Chaske Spencer) is now a heavily tatted drug dealer who’s spent most of his life in and out of jail and Makwa (now played by Michael Greyeyes) is a mid-level executive at a generic business in California where he reports to an anxious boss (Jesse Eisenberg). Makwa has as well now changed his name to “Michael Peterson,” and lives with his white wife (Kate Bosworth), their young son Francis, and another baby on the way. Yet no matter how eager Makwa is to push away his heritage, the horrors in him refuse to let go, and they especially grip tighter when Ted-O decides to pay him a visit one random day.
One of the more intriguing, bold aspects of Wild Indian is how Corbine portrays Makwa as more of a sociopath than a victim. The filmmaker does so to the point that some audiences might seem him as a simple monster as opposed to an overflowing vessel for centuries of genocidal trauma. Not that one kind of murder excuses another, but that short-sighted viewpoint reflects the ahistorical convenience that white America (and the older Makwa) often depends upon. None of this is very subtle; the adult Makwa is introduced playing golf and getting excited at the thought of some woman at his company getting fired so he can take her job. Greyeyes portrays the character with a constant sense of menace, with his flat voice and slender frame. He and Eisenberg’s character are a mismatched pair of potential, yet there isn’t much to their relationship, in the end.
Slowly self-destructing can be difficult to track over decades of time, and it’s that sense of psychology that Corbine struggles to articulate; a scene in which Makwa strangles a stripper within an inch of her life (for money) wanders into rocky territory, while long stretches of the film’s second half — where Makwa further tries to silence the remnants of his heritage — so openly embrace serial-killer tropes that it starts to feel like this is supposed to be darkly fun. Yet the somber mood that Corbine continually delivers seems to suggest otherwise. And while Greyeyes’ arresting performance leaves room to wonder if Makwa enjoys his actions, the film lacks the development to fuller progress more complicate readings. Compelling as it can be to watch Makwa grow increasingly monstrous, his trajectory is deadening to a degree that it dampens the fullness his character, rendering him more blank when aspects of complication come into his life.
Haunted yet still humane, Ted-O is in much more contrast to his childhood friend, and Spencer’s performance delivers a warmth seen nowhere else in the film. Brief scenes where he leaves prison and moves in with his sister are a complicated aside from a movie that spends most of its time spiraling down a black hole. Wild Indian has sobering aspects for how Corbine nests personal tragedies inside historical ones, but some of its most lingering sadness can be traced back to his decision to emphasize Ted-O more as symbol of Makwa’s last connection to his Ojibwe identity, rather than Makwa being the thing that further haunts Ted-O. It’s a narrative choice that, ultimately, feels like it veered the film into more obvious grounds. Even as it carries some bold, admirable ambitions, Wild Indian, in the end, fails to develop on its characters’ pathologies nor the tropes it embraces, forcing it to feel occasionally stifling.
Wild Indian premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It’s currently seeking U.S. distribution.