Sundance 2021: Wild Indian Review

“Some time ago there was an Ojibwe man who got a little sick and wandered West.” The written lines that open Wild Indian already set up the ambitious scope of Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s drama. The images that follow, of a small-pox-ridden Indigenous man stumbling around with a bow and arrow, his fate all but sealed, further establish the allegorical power of the story that follows. Set mostly in 2019, Wild Indian focuses on two cousins, Makwa (Michael Greyeyes) and Ted-O (Chaske Spencer) and the horrible secret they’ve been harboring for decades.

When we first meet them as kids, the two are very close. They have a habit of going out and practicing their shooting skills with Ted-O’s family rifle. They are moments when Makwa feels most at peace, away from the bullying he experiences in school and the beatings he endures at home. The festering anger Makwa harbors is constantly at risk of exploding into violence, which it eventually does during one of those afternoons with Ted-O and the rifle. The coverup that ensues forever mars the lives of the young boys.

When we meet them again, Makwa is now Michael. He’s done well for himself in California, with a cozy job, a loving wife (Kate Bosworth) and a toddler. He’s buried the trauma of his childhood deep within himself. That one shot he fired that fateful day not so much changed as calcified him. He still carries the casing, a totemic reminder of what he’s done – or, perhaps, what he’s since become. Ted-O, on the other hand, is leaving prison after a 10-year sentence. Where Makwa fled and thrived, Ted-O remained and floundered. And while the latter is all too happy to have wiped his slate clean, Ted-O is intent on making amends, even if that means finally coming clean about what the two did so many decades before.

The less said about how the two come together again and the irreparable repercussions that ensue the better. Wild Indian keeps you guessing throughout, at times coaxing you into thinking you’re watching a revenge tale, at others morphing into a character study in cruelty. There’s a studied precision to Corbine Jr.’s direction. Staying at times uncomfortably close to his actors, he allows the tragedy of Makwa and Ted-O play out all over Greyeyes and Spencer’s faces. Both actors are phenomenal. The former is stoic, a cipher of a canvas that barely hints at the bubbling cruelty that now suffuses Makwa’s life; the latter is an open book, wearing his emotions with as much abandon as Ted-O does his face tattoos.

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Given its focus on masculine aggression Wild Indian makes little room for its female characters. Reduced to being wives, sisters, mothers (and strippers, even, in one of the film’s most discomforting scenes) they’re sidelined in the service of the broader story the film wants to tell – about absent and violent fathers, about the toxicity “the West” so exalts as strength. The way “Michael” manages to so seamlessly build a life for himself as a model minority, cut off from who he was (only a painting of an Indigenous chief adorns his hip condo) is as much an indictment of himself as to the system he ends up belonging to. He’s embraced hardness and found himself rewarded for it, entranced nevertheless by the softness of a stripper’s skin and appalled by the softness of his own child.

At its heart this is a film about trauma. The cycle of violence Corbine Jr. is tracing is much bigger than Makwa and Ted-O. You see it in a young boy’s bruises. In a priest’s coded sympathy. In a cop’s indifference to what happens “over there.” In the way addiction and violence are treated like symptoms when they are, in Wild Indian’s telling, modern plagues.

Like the Cain and Abel story a priest shares early in the film, Wild Indian weaves a narrative around resentment of twinned and intertwined destinies. It’s traced by a number of key questions uttered throughout that elevate the plot to the level of allegory:

“Will you help me?” “What the fuck did you just do?” “What do you want?” “Do I look like the same fucking person?” “Do you know what happens when I come back here?” 

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And, crucially, one that thunders across the screen toward the end: “Are you gonna be alright?”

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