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Sundance Film Festival Review: ‘Wild Indian’ Examines America’s Legacy of Violence

What is the cost of violence? In Wild Indian, the answer is never-ending. The feature debut of writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr., the film opens with a tale from “some time ago”, where an Ojibwe man “got a little sick and wandered West”. We soon cut to the 1980s, where young Makwa (played by Phoenix Wilson) is suffering in an abusive home, while also getting bullied at school. He’s got nowhere to turn, and his only friend is Ted-O (Julian Gopal), a good pal who gets a bad break when he’s caught up with Makwa when something horrific happens. 

We then shift to the present day, where the two men have taken drastically different courses in life. Makwa, having renamed himself as Michael, (and played by Michael Greyeyes) is living in California, fully assimilated into white colonizer society as a generic executive at some bland, typical business where privileged men golf on their day off and have offices with floor to ceiling windows. Ted-O (now Chaske Spencer), meanwhile, is getting out of prison, decked out with neck and face tattoos that terrify his sister, who never visited him in prison. On the surface, Michael is thriving while Ted-O has suffered the dark path that his wholesome young self didn’t deserve to go down. 

The reality here is that none of these people deserve the cards that they were dealt. Corbine, a Native American man, has delivered a story rooted in the violence that has seeped into the blood of the Indigenous people, brought onto them by colonizers who took their lands and massacred their ancestors. Wild Indian is a searing examination of how that violence corrodes and ripples through not only this entire community, but is passed down through generations. The violence inflicted on them led to Michael’s abusive home, which led to Michael’s descent into a terrifying human being with no healthy outlet for the rage burning inside of him. There’s a scene somewhat late in the movie where Michael lashes out verbally, saying that, “all Indians are cowards”, because “the strong ones all died fighting”, that speaks to the deep reservoir of pain and anger inside of this man, this community, and his misguided attempt to assimilate with this vapid white culture as a means of escaping his roots and forging something new for himself. 

Rage is the perfect word for this movie, as it’s practically boiling over with anger from start to finish. There’s a deeply unsettling atmosphere to the movie, with many scenes that are almost unbearable to watch. The majority of that comes courtesy of Michael, played with a haunting menace by Greyeyes in the performance of his career. Channeling some mixture of Patrick Bateman and Anton Chigurh, Michael feels like this unstoppable, unknowable force who can snap at any moment, yet on the surface level has this peculiar charm that wins over the people around him. That’s particularly true of his co-worker, played in a surprising bit of casting by Jesse Eisenberg, whose squirrelly rhythms make an oddly fitting mismatch with what Greyeyes is doing. 

What’s even more interesting is the humanity that still seems to be lurking somewhere within Michael. There are occasionally flashes where this shines through, but really at all times you can see in Greyeyes’ eyes the pain that has caused him to become this man that he could have avoided being with a different childhood. That cycle of violence was already instilled into him before he was born, though, and it has engulfed all around him, including the tragic figure of Ted-O, played with agonizing heartache by Spencer. These two men deliver outstanding performances, and it’s interesting to see Eisenberg and Kate Bosworth show up in comparatively minor roles, with Bosworth playing Michael’s wife and mother of his child who he ignores. 

The casting of these known Hollywood stars in minor roles speaks to the refreshing quality of seeing a film about Native Americans and their story made by an actual Native American filmmaker. The Indigenous actors in the film have spoken about this being the first time they’ve ever gotten to work with an Indigenous director, and it brings with it a sense of authenticity to how they are being portrayed, that it’s not being filtered through some other lens. Wild Indian is all Corbine’s vision, and he’s introduced himself with his voice fully formed. This is a startling debut, so confident in tone, and trusting in his audience to be on the wavelength, which can be quite austere and off-putting at times. It’s challenging in the way that a Michael Haneke movie is challenging, where it gets to these core ideas of the darkness of human beings, and specifically here the bloodied soil that we’re all living on. 

SCORE: ★★★1/2

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Written by Mitchell Beaupre

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