Now here’s a perspective we don’t see too much, if ever, at the cinema these days. Yes, Wild Indian is another study about the mundanity of evil, a subject that’s graced the work of masters from Martin Scorsese to Michael Haneke. Sure, the questions it asks are the same infuriating ones we’re forced to ask ourselves all the time, whether we’re watching Taxi Driver or just glancing at today’s headlines: Why do people do terrible things to one another? Does our environment strip away our humanity or are some people simply born without any?
However, writer-director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr’s debut feature gives this eternal dilemma a new urgency by framing it from a viewpoint inspired by his own childhood at a Native American reservation in Wisconsin — a place, as shown in this film, still reeling in the aftermath of genocide and colonialism from centuries back. It’s the kind of place that can easily breed alcoholism and self-loathing in its population, and when we meet young Makwa (Phoenix Wilson), he’s experiencing both of them first-hand. Living under an abusive stepfather and an indifferent mother, Makwa’s already more of a ghost than a preteen boy, and any respite he gets comes from hanging out in the woods and shooting targets with his cousin Ted-O (Julian Gopal).
Ted-O seems relatively well-adjusted compared to Makwa, who’s already harboring murderous impulses when he dangles a kitchen knife over his mom’s sleeping head or glares menacingly at a classmate whose home life seems similarly unfortunate but nevertheless manages to walk through his day with a confidence that enrages Makwa. One day, Makwa commits an act of violence that forever alters the course of his and his cousin’s lives. Almost immediately after this tragedy occurs, we meet Makwa three decades later (now played by Michael Greyeyes) dressed to the nines and playing some holes at the golf course. He’s managed to escape the toxic environment of his childhood and find what American society tells us is success — a lucrative corporate job, a doting wife (Kate Bosworth) and child and a sweet promotion on the way.
Greyeyes’ performance is Wild Indian’s strongest asset. He’s reserved and polite but also completely hollow. Take an early scene where his wife breaks the news that she’s pregnant with their second child. His initial reaction is a blank stare and confused stuttering, Only when seeing his wife’s disappointment does he realize the appropriate response for him is to act delighted. He quickly forces a smile and states, “We’ll need to get a bigger place.” For Makwa, surface-level commodities are his only means of identity. He hasn’t felt anything resembling empathy or compassion since he was a damaged kid living on the reservation. The only thing he does apparently feel is self-loathing.
Ted-O, of course, comes back into the picture (played as an adult by Chaske Spencer), and his life hasn’t been quite as smooth as Makwa’s since their childhood. Walking out of prison with a fresh face tattoo, Ted-O carries the weight of his traumatic days on the reservation as plainly as Makwa hides his own past. How the two end up crossing paths again is a key part of Wild Indian’s narrative. Needless to say, some kind of reckoning is imminent.
The movie is at its best when grappling with Makwa’s identity crisis and inability to acknowledge his roots. “We’re the descendents of cowards,” Makwa seethes at one point, “Everyone worthwhile died fighting.” It’s a powerful moment, especially harrowing given how seldom the character is ever honest with anyone about his feelings. It’s unfortunately the kind of moment that you wish Corbine made further room for in Wild Indian’s 90-minute runtime, as it feels like there’s plenty of promising thematic potential left unexplored by the film’s end.
Indeed, too much time is spent in ponderous silence while Makwa stares miserably into the distance or engages in some bizarre, and ultimately unexplained, behavior like going to strip clubs and paying strippers to choke them; engaging in stilted office conversations with his apprehensive coworker (executive producer Jesse Eisenberg in a bit part) or staring at his son with alien fascination. Makwa is infinitely more compelling on paper than he is in action. His existential struggle is a fascinating one, and while Corbine’s screenplay wisely never tries to excuse Makwa’s sociopathy with his abusive upbringing, there isn’t much else to the character than that. He’s mostly theme, very little inner life.
Regardless, Wild Indian presents a troubling and engrossing vision of Native American identity that isn’t quite like anything out there at the moment. You only wish that vision was attached to a more compelling story. Watching the movie is like reading a first draft that’s both incredibly promising and in need of some major revisions; either way though, it’s told from a voice from which you’re eager to hear again.