Sundance 2021: “Wild Indian” is an incredible Native American drama

Sundance Wild Indian

The Michael Greyeyes-starring Sundance debut announces Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. as an exciting new filmmaker.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

The never-ending cycle of violence and abuse is at the center of Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s directorial debut Wild Indian. Part drama thriller and part character study of historical and generational trauma, Wild Indian announces Corbine as an exciting new voice. His vision is bold, confidently going to places that are dark and unconventional, with a masterful cinematic language often only found in the works of a seasoned filmmaker. His writing is airless, tightening the tension of the story up to eleven. It’s a phenomenal debut in the truest sense.

Wild Indian opens in a Wisconsin reservation circa the 1980s, and it sees a young Native American boy named Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) lying to the Catholic priest at his school about the bruises on his face. When the priest asks Makwa where he got the bruises, he says that he fell while on his way to school. But that’s not exactly what happens. Makwa got his bruises from his abusive dad, and the only person who knows about this, or about everything that’s going in his life, is his friend slash cousin Ted-O (Julian Gopal). 

But the relationship between the two is tested when one day, after school, Makwa, harboring so much anger, murders one of his classmates in the woods using a rifle owned by Ted-O’s dad — an incident that will soon impact the lives of these two best friends.

As the film jumps into the present, Makwa now goes as Michael (Michael Greyeyes) and is working at a seemingly white-dominated office in California. He has a loving wife (Kate Bosworth) and a baby waiting at home every day. Though now he doesn’t look like the scared young man that he was three decades ago, it’s obvious that there’s still unprocessed pain and trauma inside him. 

Makwa tries his hardest to forget all those painful memories and to shed every bit of his past, including his heritage as a Native American man. But the more he disposes those parts of him, the more it haunts him.

Where Makwa bottles up his trauma, and in the process becomes a sociopath with a capacity for violence, Ted-O (Chaske Spencer), on the other hand, despite having been in and out of prison for years, is capable to show empathy and admit his past sin. In one of the most touching scenes in the movie, he attempts to reconnect with his sister, Cammy (Lisa Gromarty), and forms a relationship with her five-year-old son.

[Corbine’s] vision is bold, confidently going to places that are dark and unconventional, with a masterful cinematic language often only found in the works of a seasoned filmmaker.

But just like how the past still haunts Makwa, Ted-O, no matter how hard he tries to move on, is still dealing with the guilt and trauma he’s been having since the shooting incident three decades ago. So in an attempt to break himself free from it, Ted-O decides to pay his former best friend a visit to force him to turn himself in to the police — a request that Makwa does not receive very well.

The reunion between Makwa and Ted-O is where Wild Indian is at its most intense. But instead of leaning heavily on over-the-top drama and violence, the scene is played out as understatedly as possible. Yes, gunshots are involved, but the biggest tension mostly comes from the quiet dread between the two characters; the truth that’s gone unspoken for years. In that sense, it mirrors the trauma and the pain that the two have kept hidden inside them for far too long. And this minimalistic, subtle approach by Corbine is what makes Wild Indian all the more gripping in the end, with a haunting effect that lingers long even after the end credit rolls.

Even more fascinating are the performances Corbin draws from his actors. As the adult Ted-O, Spencer offers a certain warmth to his character, a quality that the movie lacks a little. Every scene Spencer shares with Gromarty is always moving. 

But Wild Indian is without a doubt a showcase of Greyeyes’ talent. His performance as a man unable to show empathy is unnerving, displaying the cruelty of his character in a way that’s both powerful and subtle. But there’s also a layer of vulnerability underneath that Greyeyes provides to Michael. It’s a difficult, complex performance to pull through, but one that Corbin aces effortlessly.

Wild Indian is a tough watch. It’s depressing and bleak in every sense of the word. Some people may not enjoy it for how dark it gets. But that’s what makes it unique. The movie challenges the mainstream narrative of a character study to achieve something remarkable, something so soul-stirring and one that’s uneasy to forget. Corbine has done an impressive job in his first feature. This one is not to be missed.

Wild Indian played in the U.S. Dramatic category of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and is currently seeking distribution.

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