Sundance Review: Wild Indian
Studios take note: if you’re looking to find the next Denis Villeneuve — a director able to package incredibly bleak, tense subject matter into riveting, popcorn-adjacent fare — Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. would make for a pretty good bet if his debut feature is any indication. With Wild Indian, Corbine Jr. slowly lowers us deeper and deeper into a tale of violence and pain built on a foundation of generational and individual trauma, one that leaves us shell-shocked by the time the credits roll.
Despite the ninety-minute runtime, Corbine Jr. takes his time setting his narrative in motion, drawing out the tension of the early scenes as you wait for the inevitable hammer to fall. We start in the 1980s with middle schooler cousins Makwa and Ted-O: we can tell something is off with Makwa right away, but it’s easy to chalk up to his circumstances. Bullied at school and abused at home, Makwa becomes filled with cold rage and resentment that threatens to boil over at any moment. He’s a time bomb disguised as a child — the question isn’t if he’ll explode, but when. That doesn’t make the eventual moment any less shocking, but the lack of emotion attached to the act of violence (impressively conveyed by a young Phoenix Wilson) is what scares us the most.
Cut to the present day and the real meat of the story takes shape. Makwa — now going by Michael — has found success as a California businessman, wielding his Indigenous heritage primarily as a tool to make his coworkers feel uncomfortable. Ted-O, on the other hand, has been far less fortunate. As much as the two men might try to escape the echoes of the past, true absolution seems increasingly impossible to grasp.
I won’t pretend to have a full grasp on the complexities of the cultural commentary at play here (I’d encourage you to seek out Native perspectives on the film if you wish to parse out the context more fully), but it’s clear from the get-go that Corbine Jr. means to fully engage with deep-rooted themes of inherited trauma and historical narratives. From the film’s folkloric bookends to issues of learned toxic masculinity, the director is unafraid to wade into fraught and complex waters and Wild Indian is all the more powerful for it.
Of course a piece this knotty and grim can easily sink under its own weight without actors of sufficient caliber to buoy it, but the film benefits immensely from astounding performances by the two men at its center. As Makwa, Michael Greyeyes simmers with sociopathy: icy when you expect explosiveness, unpredictable in his shark-like aggression, but still a child in pain deep down. A late scene in which he confronts a woman connected to him through tragedy is horrifying in its matter-of-factness, which Greyeyes sells without breaking a sweat. But as good as Greyeyes is, Chaske Spencer’s Ted-O gives the film its true moral center. Playing a man torn apart by family and by chance circumstance, Spencer is heartbreakingly authentic and devastatingly moving — Corbine Jr. smartly gives him a lengthy narrative digression in the middle of the film that serves to bolster audience empathy to great effect, even though we sense the rug is just sitting there, waiting to be pulled out from under us.
If there’s a criticism to be had, it’s that Wild Indian is perhaps too bleak. It’s an understandable reaction: the film pulls no punches and gives little reprieve. But for my money it never stoops to darkness for darkness’ sake — there’s no gleeful sadism, no joy to be found in the downward spiral. Corbine Jr. knows what story he’s telling and why he’s telling it, and leaves no doubt that he understands the tone necessary to tell it well. Wild Indian marks the emergence of a major talent and I, for one, can’t wait to see what comes next.