Written, directed, produced, and co-edited by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., “Wild Indian” tells the unsettling story of two men inextricably linked by a violent crime from their childhood. It’s a piercing and clear-eyed examination of trauma, guilt and embracing identity rather than running from it. Told through a deeply authentic indigenous perspective, “Wild Indian” contextualizes numerous aspects of the modern native experience while knocking down conventional approaches to indigenous characters and their stories.
Corbin Jr.’s “Some time ago” opening has an inescapable folktale quality to it. An Ojibwe tribesman trudges under a beautiful sun-cracked forest canopy with nothing but his bow and arrow. We don’t see he’s face, but a caption tells us he “got a little sick“. We don’t know where he’s going, but he’s clearly compelled to keep moving. The short sequence not only drips with allegory, but it’s a subtle way of connecting the past to the modern day. And when the tribesman reappears later, his presence has a much clearer and more visceral meaning.
The story proper begins in 1988 on a Wisconsin reservation where a young teen named Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) wears more bruises than smiles due to an abusive home life. With no childhood to speak of and his innocence stripped away, Makwa’s lone retreat is his cousin and best friend Ted-O (Julian Gopal). Life at a local Catholic school isn’t much better. There he is bullied and left on the fringes by the other students. A priest inquires about the bruises but Makwa refuses to say, knowing what will happen at home if he does.
While walking through the woods after school an exasperated and worn down Makwa tells Ted-O “I don’t want to go home. I can’t handle it no more.” Makwa takes the rifle they slipped out of Ted-O’s house and arbitrarily fires at a classmate walking in the distance. With a cold budding psychopathy Makwa coerces Ted-O into helping him bury the body. Neither tells anyone what happened. All through this a simmering yet perhaps too subtle subtext speaks to missing persons, law enforcement and reservation life.
The story then leaps ahead to 2019. Makwa (now played by Michael Greyeyes) has burned every hint of his past, his heritage, and his culture. He’s changed his name to Michael Peterson. His marriage to his white wife (Kate Bosworth) feels like an act of assimilation rather than out of genuine love. And his pandering to his bosses (one of them skittishly played by Jesse Eisenberg) has him in line for a promotion at his San Francisco business firm. But Corbin Jr. wastes no time showing that no matter how deep you bury your past you can’t fully escape it.
The trajectory of Ted-O’s life couldn’t be more different. He’s spent the last 25 years in and out of prison mostly for drug offenses and we meet him again (now played by Chaske Spencer) as he’s finishing up a ten-year sentence. A close-minded judge might write Ted-O off as a bad seed. He has a shaved head and tattoos on his face and neck to go with the rap sheet. But underneath the hardened exterior are echoes of a good heart. Even more, he still bears the guilt from that deadly afternoon in the woods.
Contrast that with Michael who is clean-cut, has the fancy suits and walks with an air of success. But underneath his dapper façade is a damaged man barely suppressing his deep-rooted violent impulses. Greyeyes has an austerity and emotional restraint perfect for a man curbing his dark side. But when those impulses boil to the surface Greyeyes can be terrifying and the film’s thriller elements really come to light. And hats off to Corbin Jr. and his fellow indigenous cast and crew for bucking how movies have often handled native characters.
“Wild Indian” highlights the immeasurable value of independent filmmaking. It allows stories to be told from perspectives too often neglected by the studio machines. With this film the uniqueness of Corbin Jr.’s point-of-view is apparent and his storytelling grounds us in a shrewd gritty realism. His sure-handed direction is only hampered by his brisk pacing which whisks us through parts of the story that could have used more detail. But that doesn’t lessen the impact of what we’re given and I can’t wait to see what Corbin Jr. does next.
VERDICT – 4 STARS