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‘Wild Indian’ Continues a Native Filmmaking Renaissance

Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s first feature film is daring, dark, and dramatic while commenting on some tough subjects regarding the modern Native experience.
Sundance 2021: Wild Indian
Sundance Institute
By  · Published on February 2nd, 2021

Wild Indian is a dark cinematic dance that explores the harsh effects of colonization that are still evident in modern Native communities. Resentment and self-loathing in regards to Native masculinity is explored in this well made dramatic thriller, but the authenticity brought to the story by writer and director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. make this narrative different. 

The film begins in 1980s Wisconsin. Two Anishinaabe preteen cousins, Makwa and Ted-O (Phoenix Wilson and Julian Gopal), stick together as they attend a mostly white Catholic school near their reservation. Makwa uses his shaggy hair to cover up the bruises on his face, put there by the unidentified father figure at home. After school, he joins Ted-O in the nearby forest to shoot the guns unknowingly snuck out of a parent’s closet.

Makwa’s obsession with the nearby town, away from their reservation is obvious through his gaze. He watches a happy blonde-haired family walk after school from the bus window daydreaming of a life that is different from the abusive situation that awaits him at home. This obsession turns to envy when another Native classmate, James (Colton Knaus), starts to date a blonde classmate. Impulsively, Makwa shoots and kills James, forcing Ted-O to help him bury the body. Before leaving the forest, Makwa walks back to where the murder occurred and picks up the golden gunshot shell before slipping it into his pocket. 

Fast forward to 2019, and these two cousins are now in very different places in life. Makwa (Michael Greyeyes) — who now goes by Michael — lives in a big house in California with a beautiful blonde wife (Kate Bosworth) and a newborn baby. His success at his corporate job is hinted at throughout as a coworker (Jesse Eisenberg) continually encourages Makwa about a work deal that is happening behind the scenes. However, repeated shots of him glancing at that same golden gunshot shell in his pocket before returning to everyday life is a reminder that something violent lives within him. 

Still in Wisconsin, Ted-O (Chaske Spencer) is being released from a ten-year prison sentence. His face, neck, and fingers are covered in tattoos that make his exterior look dangerous. But as Ted-O adjusts to life outside of bars with his sister and five-year-old nephew, a kindness is revealed. A touching scene between the boy and his uncle as they play catch shows that despite his tough appearance, Ted-O is in touch with his broken inner child. 

Eli Born‘s cinematography plays a huge role in establishing the film’s bleak tone. From the first moments these boys are on screen, a sense of isolation is evident. The dry winter grass, the barren trees, and the rundown homes that make up the setting are captured at a distance, establishing tangible and tense loneliness. These unspoken feelings not only foreshadow the dismal events that occur through the film but consistently overshadow even the few happy moments in Wild Indian.

The shared trauma that Ted-O and Makwa carry comes across in unique ways, and the nuanced performances from the two lead actors are chilling; the chemistry between Greyeyes and Spencer hypnotizes in each scene. Greyeyes especially is terrific in this antihero role, suppressing his usual and natural warmth to inhabit a bitter man hiding violent urges.

There is one scene in particular when Makwa’s wife announces she is pregnant. The lack of excitement, or really any sort of response from Makwa causes her to repeat this news. Knowing that he must at least fake some sort of sentiment, the distant husband attempts to give her what she is expecting by changing his tone as he states his happiness. Despite his words, Makwa’s eyes appear elsewhere, truly showcasing Greyeyes’ range.

While the script is powerful — full of allegorical subtext that compares these characters to Cain and Abel — a touch more development for Ted-O would have given Wild Indian a more powerful punch. Really, these characters display two different outcomes that can occur due to a traumatic experience and Ted-O deserves just a bit more screen time to fully comment on this topic.

With the outstanding performances from two Native actors comes the bold choice from Corbine to give only a handful of lines to the big-name white talents, Eisenberg and Bosworth. This move is evidence that this entire production put its story and the Native audience first and foremost rather than catering to the white gaze majority. In a Q&A after the film’s Sundance Film Festival premiere, Corbine commented on this, stating that for so long, Native roles have been made into metaphors for white protagonists but in this case, the opposite occurs. 

This does bring up the question of the two bookmark scenes that feature what one might call a “Noble Native” (a nicer name for the trope that is common in fictional narratives). A Native man is seen in a historical setting covered in smallpox blisters. While the filmmaker’s intent is read as a certain reclaiming of this character, it is unnecessary, as the subtext that is built into the storyline of the cousins already provides a certain reclaiming just by placing Native characters in the modern-day world. Corbine needs to trust his own story to speak for itself because the power that exists within the story of Makwa and Ted-O is astronomical. 

This film is not an easy watch, as it is unafraid to tackle serious topics. However, there is an inconsistency in the choice to show Makwa’s hidden sinister tendencies through violent acts against women in two scenes. Obviously, the intent in these instances is to showcase that the cold-blooded killer that shot a young boy, a friend, is still alive within Makwa’s being. My fear is that this route could be weaponized and further incorrect narratives that Native men are the biggest threat to their own communities. 

There’s a reason Corbine was named one of Variety‘s 10 Directors to Watch for 2021 and that reason is Wild Indian. The film is tense, thought-provoking, and a new stepping stone in the Native filmmaking scene. Because the concept of Native filmmakers having complete autonomy over their own stories is still a new phenomenon, the weaknesses in the film are to be expected. There needs to be room for Native creatives to explore these consequences of colonization outside of the white gaze to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

This in no way discounts the power that this film has from start to finish and is further evidence that more art like Wild Indian deserves to be made. Here’s to the Native filmmaking renaissance that continues to flourish. May we see more releases that tackle these tough topics with such a fearless attitude.

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Shea Vassar is a ᏣᎳᎩ film nerd & huge fan of coffee, cats, and the OKC Thunder.