Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. opens his feature debut, Wild Indian, in a distant past beyond memory as an Indigenous man hunts in America before it was America. Then, he time warps to the 1980s as teenage Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) brushes off the concerns of the Catholic priest at school, who believes Makwa suffers from domestic abuse but can’t take action without the boy’s word. Makwa entrusts his cousin, Teddo (Julian Gopal), with the truth, but in the face of a horrific tragedy they each end up on wildly different paths from the other with decades separating them. Corbine Jr. flashes forward one last time, now to the present day, where his meandering, forceful story begins in earnest.
Wild Indian carries the burdens of too many thoughts with too little space to do the work necessary to lay down its load to breathe. The movie is at once a cool mosaic of Native American experience, a real-world riff on American Psycho, a cautionary tale of how our past sins haunt us for life, and a picture of the lasting damage abuse does to a person beneath their skin. Corbine Jr. lands on none of these as his story’s beacon, but he doesn’t wander through the darkness without something to light his way: A sober tone first, Michael Greyeyes as an adult Makwa second and Chaske Spencer as an adult Teddo a close third. They’re Wild Indian’s constants. If the structure is out of joint, they at least keep the film from collapsing on itself.
For Makwa, growing from boy to man means growing from innocent to stony, not to mention taking “Michael” as his name, because Wild Indian is also a passing narrative. (With this many themes packed into an hour and a half, what’s one more?) The incident of their youth put Teddo in prison but kept Michael out, a crime unto itself given who owns the greater share of guilt for their transgressions. But by a wicked miracle, Teddo’s incarcerated life didn’t rob him of his empathy, where Michael’s life of liberty turned him into an alpha male bully. Upward mobility in white America is a total con job. All Michael appears to care about is the pursuit of more. All Teddo wants is just to have an honest conversation with Michael about what happened, which goes about as well as anyone might guess after spending ten minutes with Michael and realizing what an insufferable prick he is.
Corbine Jr.’s camera, guided by Eli Born, practically glares at Michael, never breaking eye contact with him as so many of us might do if we talked to him ourselves. He’s stoic and tends to treat discussion as either a chore to be done as quickly as possible or something he must dominate. He masks that callousness well, but Wild Indian doesn’t let him fool the audience, and Corbine Jr. refuses to let Michael win the contest. Roger Ebert once described the movies as “a machine that generates empathy.” Corbine Jr. puts Ebert’s words into practice better than most movies released in 2021. Even if the script (which he also wrote) trips over discombobulation and cries out for finesse, the strength of care he shows for Michael and Teddo, frame by frame, is extraordinary. Compassionate as Corbine Jr. is, though, he also comes off as hesitant to decide whose story Wild Indian should tell, choosing neither a character study of Michael nor a dual-perspective piece. (Think John Okada’s No-No Boy, but rooted in Native American history rather than Japanese American history.)
Still, it takes a certain kind of man to stand by his lead when they’re determinedly on the winding road to Hell. One wonders what Wild Indian might have been with more attention paid to writing. Maybe digging into each idea as Corbine Jr. presents them just puts too much weight on what’s arguably the film’s most important elements, that of the injustice of Teddo’s fate compared to Michael’s and the dynamics of playing ball in white man’s land as a Native American. Michael isn’t white, but he performs “white” more convincingly than his boss, Jerry, played by Jesse Eisenberg on what appears to be on a Xanax regimen: He’s good, but so laid back in contrast with his prototypical twitchiness that he feels unrecognizable. This facilitates Greyeyes’ towering work as Michael, and so the film is better off with easygoing Eisenberg standing before imposing Greyeyes. It’s in this context that we feel the most pity for Michael. How depressing to survive what he endures as a kid, only to climb the corporate ladder two rungs at a time as an adult.
He’s trying to get away from the kid he used to be, of course, and Corbine Jr. makes sure nobody—not Michael, not his lovely, caring wife Greta (Kate Bosworth) and certainly not the viewer—forgets. Generational pain rests at Wild Indian’s core. But it isn’t just Michael’s pain, or Teddo’s: It goes all the way back to the man seen in the film’s preamble, and met once more in a bookending scene. Are Michael and Teddo the two most probable options available to Native Americans? Have the ravages of colonial genocide stolen so much from the country’s rightful and original inhabitants that only two routes remain for most to take? Wild Indian doesn’t have answers. There aren’t any. Instead, there are experiences, and Corbine Jr. captures his protagonists’ personal transformations with steeled honesty.
Director: Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.
Writer: Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.
Starring: Michael Greyeyes, Chaske Spencer, Kate Bosworth, Jesse Eisenberg
Release Date: September 3, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.