The return of an ugly past

Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., a Native American, has made a powerful if flawed debut feature in Wild Indian, which he also wrote. This dark tale is a grim cry of anguish about Native American experience, its crushing humiliation and its trauma and abuse and failure passed on from generation to generation. The protagonist at one point says "Indians are a bunch of fuckin' liars and narcissists. We're the descendants of cowards. Everyone worthwhile died fighting." In passing and sometimes more directly the film alludes to symptoms, the prevalence of alcoholism and suicide on reservations. At the center are two boys who share in a terrible event that towers over them thirty years later. Background detail is sketchy; the drawing is cropped and expressionistic. Still, it works. The focus is single-mindedly on that early time and the implosion that grows out of it at last decades later. Where Corbine excels is in achieving, with the help of the handsome, gloomy cinematography of dp Eli Born and the haunting score of Gavin Brivik, of an intense, oppressive mood that flows naturally from childhood abuse. "Handsome" and "haunting" are clinchés, but what raises the film to the level of memorable is the acting of the two leads who play the boys as two very different adults, each damaged in his own way.

We see sketchy but intense moments of the boy, Makwa (a powerfully broody Phoenix Wilson), whose drunken young father constantly beats him and chases him out of the house. His playmate Ted-O (Julian Gopal) teaches him how to aim better with an air rifle, and he gets so good he knocks down and kills their classmate James Wolf (Colton Knaus). Makwa compels Ted-O to share the secret, bury the dead boy. Decades later it's the opposite of what you'd expect, especially since young actor Julian Gopal looks angelic as Ted-O. Now the grownup Ted-O (played by Chaske Spencer) is getting out of prison, with a big tattoo on his face, after twenty-five years in and out of jail for drug dealing and violence. Makwa, now known as Michael, married (to and with an adopted non-Indian last name and living in California, not Wisconsin, has become a "success," plays golf, excels at an office job, and is lined up for a significant promotion. As if to caricature the white world he has entered, his boss is played by a typically skittish, jittery Jesse Eisenberg, who seems pleased to have him on board because he "checks all the right boxes," but also afraid of him or of commenting on his long, theatrical ponytail. The casting of Eisenberg (one of the producers) has been criticized, but I think he depicts how white bosses seem to Native Americans. The inclusion of a sermon on Cain and Abel, on the other hand, seems over-explicit.

There has never been an actor wound up tighter than Michael Greyeyes as the grownup, successful Makwa. It's an intense and boldly unsympathetic performance that perfectly fits Corbine's boldly unsympathetic main character. Greyeyes is hooded, hidden, and scary: the character, as David Erlich wrote in IndieWire, "more a sociopath than a victim"). For a while after his release the tattooed, damaged adult Ted-O roams around near where they came from, finds his mother, gets a job in a restaurant kitchen. But the murder still haunts and one day takes over. He runs away from his makeshift new life and is led to the door of the victim's mother, then to somehow tracking down Michael. "How did you find me?" Michael asks. "Wasn't that hard," says Ted-O. "Just asked around for the fakest fuckin' Indian you've ever seen." And to bear him out, there's Michael's skinny ponytail, plus a big, somehow embarrassing black and white painting of a cliched Indian chief on the wall of the big, light, airy house in which no wearing of shoes is allowed.

The encounter of the two men who haven't seen each other for decades is terrible, and yet also somehow banal, Greek tragedy, with muffled voices. Even though it's violent, it's anticlimactic. Corbine's film is best at the way it conveys a sense of lives so damaged both good days and bad feel equally hushed-up and stifled. We see that earlier when Michael comes home, before Ted-O's arrival, and his wife (all-American beauty Kate Bosworth) tells him she's pregnant. There isn't a comfortable second between them, or an instant of happiness at this "good" news. Makwa's endorphins died and were reborn as venom. Does anybody think that with that childhood, he'd make a good father? Michael's secret life has been seen in his visits to a club where he pays a pretty "model" to let him choke her in a secret room without cameras to within an inch of her life; and it was at this place that he met his present wife.

The Variety review by Peter Debruge compares this film with Moonlight as another portrait, of very unlike-looking actors at far-apart times, showing "inner turmoil" and "the search to accept oneself"; the reviewer points to the fanciful portraits of a long-ago Indian in furs, with bow and arrow, dying of smallpox, played by Michael Greyeyes, that bookend the film, and says the new movie is "more conventional, and not nearly as well acted" (he does acknowledge this "heralds an important new voice"). This analogy may help you get your head around Wild Indian. Yes, Moonlight is the better and also the more formally inventive film. But Wild Indian has another subject, very specific things to say, and an intensity in saying them. The self-hatred and loathing and inter-generational trauma of Wild Indian make a very disturbing, probably controversial, depiction of the Native American legacy. Corbine has found an intense, deep, bold way of reformatting his own experience.

Wild Indian, 90 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 20, 2021, where Corbine had significant help in development. US theatrical release Sept. 3, 2021. Current Metascore: 71% (based on seven reviews).