Wild Indian is a dark cinematic dance that examines the harsh effects of colonization that can still be seen in modern Native American communities. Resentment and self-loathing for Native American masculinity are explored in this well-made dramatic thriller, but the authenticity that the writer and director has brought to the story Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. make this narrative different.
The film opens in Wisconsin in the 1980s. Two teenage Anishinaabe cousins, Makwa and Ted-O (Phoenix Wilson and Julian Gopal) stick together when attending a mostly white Catholic school near their reservation. Makwa uses his shaggy hair to hide the bruises on his face that the unknown father figure left there at home. After school, he joins Ted-O in the nearby forest to shoot the guns that unwittingly snuck out of a parent’s closet.
Makwa’s obsession with the nearby town, away from its reservation, is evident from his gaze. He watches from the bus window of a happy blonde family after school as they dream of a life different from the abusive situation awaiting them at home. That obsession turns into envy when another Native American classmate, James (Colton Knaus), starts dating a blonde classmate. Impulsively, Makwa shoots and kills James, forcing Ted-O to help him bury the body. Before Makwa leaves the forest, he goes back to the place where the murder took place and picks up the gold bullet before putting it in his pocket.
Fast forward to 2019, and these two cousins are now in very different places in life. Makwa (Michael Greyeyes) – who is now passing Michael – lives with a beautiful blonde woman in a large house in California (Kate Bosworth) and a newborn. His success in his corporate job is consistently indicated as an employee (Jesse Eisenberg) Makwa constantly encourages a working arrangement that takes place behind the scenes. However, repeated shots of him looking at the same golden bullet sleeve in his pocket before returning to everyday life are a reminder that something violent lives inside him.
Still in Wisconsin, Ted-O (Chaske Spencer) is released from a ten-year prison sentence. His face, neck, and fingers are covered in tattoos that make his appearance look dangerous. But when Ted-O gets used to life outside the bars with his sister and five-year-old nephew, a friendliness becomes apparent. A touching scene between the boy and his uncle catching shows that Ted-O is in contact with his broken inner child despite his tough appearance.
Eli bornCinematography plays a huge role in setting the dark tone of the film. From the first moments these boys are on screen, a sense of isolation is evident. The dry winter grass, the barren trees and the shabby houses that make up the surrounding area are captured at some distance, creating a palpable and tense loneliness. These unspoken feelings not only hint at the dark events of the film, but also overshadow the few happy moments in Wild Indian.
The joint trauma that Ted-O and Makwa suffer is unique, and the nuanced performances of the two main characters are terrifying. The chemistry between Greyeyes and Spencer is mesmerizing in every scene. Greyeyes in particular is great in this antihero role, suppressing his usual and natural warmth to inhabit a bitter man who hides violent urges.
In particular, there is one scene in which Makwa’s wife announces that she is pregnant. The lack of excitement or really any kind of response from Makwa causes her to repeat this message. The distant husband knows he has to at least fake a feeling and tries to give her what to expect by changing his tone as he expresses his happiness. Despite his words, Makwa’s eyes appear elsewhere and really show Greyeyes’ reach.
While the script is powerful – full of allegorical subtexts comparing these characters to Cain and Abel – a touch more development would have given Ted-O Wild Indian a more powerful blow. Really, these characters show two different outcomes that can arise from a traumatic experience and Ted-O just deserves a little more on-screen time to fully comment on this topic.
With the excellence of two local actors comes Corbine’s brave decision to give just a handful of lines to noted white talents Eisenberg and Bosworth. This move is proof that this entire production puts their story and local audiences in the foreground in the first place, rather than suiting the majority of white looks. In a Q&A after the premiere of the Sundance Film Festival, Corbine commented on this, explaining that for so long native roles had been turned into metaphors for white protagonists, but in this case the opposite happens.
This begs the question of the two bookmark scenes that contain what might be described as a “Noble Native” (a nice name for the trope that is common in fictional narratives). A local man is seen in a historical setting covered in smallpox blisters. While the filmmaker’s intent is read as some reclamation of this character, this is unnecessary as the subtext built into the cousins’ plot already offers some reclamation by only inserting native characters into the modern world. Corbine has to trust his own story to speak for himself, for the power present in the story of Makwa and Ted-O is astronomical.
This film is not a simple watch as it is not afraid to tackle serious issues. However, there is an inconsistency in the choice of showing Makwa’s hidden sinister tendencies through acts of violence against women in two scenes. Obviously, in these cases it should be shown that the cold-blooded murderer who shot a boy, a friend, is still alive in Makwa’s being. I fear that this avenue could become armed and other false stories that native men pose the greatest threat to their own communities.
There’s a reason Corbine was named one of Variety’s 10 directors for 2021, and that reason is Wild Indian. The film is tense, thought-provoking, and is a new stepping stone in the local film scene. Since the concept that local filmmakers are completely autonomous about their own stories is still a new phenomenon, the movie’s weaknesses are to be expected. There needs to be room for local creatives to examine these consequences of colonization outside of the white gaze and find out what works and what doesn’t.
This in no way detracts from the power this movie possesses from start to finish, and is further proof that more art like Wild Indian deserves to be made. To the renaissance of domestic filmmaking that continues to thrive. May we see more publications that approach these difficult subjects with such a fearless attitude.