“Some time ago… there was an Ojibwe man who got a little sick and wandered West.” Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.‘s debut feature starts with some sort of folkloric prologue, before we embark on what could easily be called “Native American Psycho”. ‘Wild Indian‘ is a dark modern serial-killer drama that doesn’t always leave much to the imagination.
It’s somewhere in the 1980s and teenager Makwa tries to survive an abusive household while wasting his days away in class, where he’s no stranger to bullies. Young actor Phoenix Wilson conveys tough emotions with a simple look and the sound of his voice. The sad surroundings he grows up in have turned inwards, waiting to solidify in the kind of anger that can’t be confined and justified. Undoubtedly he’s inherited the anger and torture of his ancestors, but that’s just my interpretation of Corbine’s film, as he doesn’t really explore this aspect of Indigenous history.
With his only friend Ted-O (Julian Goppal), Makwa often goes shooting at bottles and cans in the nearby woods, to avoid going home. But one afternoon things take a different turn and Makwa points the riffle at a classmate who happens to be walking by and murders him in cold-blood. Together with Ted-O, they vow to keep this secret and move on with their lives. Thirty years later, both men live completely different lives, with Ted-O )(Chaske Spencer) being released from prison, for dealing drugs and Makwa (now going by the name Michael) living a picture perfect life in California.
Spencer is without a doubt the star of this film. There’s a scene in which he breaks down in tears, that feels as if he’s been building towards this point in his career and finally got permission to let go of all his bottled up emotions. His warm and humane scenes are necessary in order for the viewer not to get completely suffocated by the darkness that surrounds Michael Greyeyes‘ performance. He does exactly what’s needed of him, which makes it hard to tell if his performance is noteworthy or not, being that it’s very monotone and extremely soulless, just like the character he’s playing. A few nuanced ticks would’ve made it memorable, but he has nothing on Spencer. Jesse Eisenberg and Kate Bosworth, who respectively play his fidgety boss and wife, are familiar names but are disposable characters from the get go and could’ve been played by any other actor in Hollywood.
Makwa’s personality is explosive. And while he doesn’t really show it, it’s his actions that are so unpredictable, you know you’re dealing with a killer that’s given up on his soul a lifetime ago. He has an obsession with choking people, and during some late night escapade to a club even pays a stripper to nearly suffocate her. When Ted-O decides to pay him a visit, he realizes this haunting past will never let go of him unless he singes every loose thread that could possibly expose the horrific events of three decades ago. We first meet Makwa as a victim, but by this point in the story he’s an utterly terrifying sociopath. Composer Gavin Brivik and cinematographer Eli Born also know perfectly how to elevate that sense of dread with their superb work.
People of different backgrounds will see Makwa in a different light. Sure, he’s a monster, but I believe there’s more to his actions than just that one incident. At one point he even asks his boss if he should cut off his traditional braid, clearly triggering a reaction and hereby hoping to make a white man uncomfortable. It’s clever but doesn’t entirely fit with the rest of the film, as he’s more violent and vengeful towards Native Americans. Corbine is subtle in his underlying message, and maybe even too subtle for mainstream audiences who are just sitting down for what it looks like on the surface – a serial-killer drama.
‘Wild Indian‘ could easily be one of the most divisive films coming out of Sundance this year, but it’ll make people talk one way or another.
Review – ‘Wild Indian’
Reviewed online (currently screening at Sundance Film Festival), January 31, 2021. Rating: TBC. Running time: 90 min.
PRODUCTION: A Logical Pictures, Pureplay Entertainment production in association with BoulderLight Pictures, MM2 Entertainment. Producers: Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., Thomas Mahoney, Eric Tavitian. Executive producers: Katy Drake Bettner, Niraj Bhatia, Celine Dornier, Jesse Eisenberg, Frédéric Fiore, Brent Ryan Green, J.D. Lifshitz, Adam Margules, Raphael Margules, Lesli A. Masoner, Dan McClung, Joel Michaely.
CREW: Director/screenplay: Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.. Cinematography: Eli Born. Editing: Ed Yonaitis. Score: Gavin Brivik.
CAST: Michael Greyeyes, Kate Bosworth, Lisa Cromarty, Jesse Eisenberg, Sheri Foster, Tres Garcia, Julian Goppal, Elisha Pratt, Chaske Spencer, Phoenix Wilson.