Wild Indian suggests a possible fascinating study that it doesn’t follow through on, but it does add enough wrinkles and character nuance to remain mostly compelling.
Wild Indian begins with an epigraph that reads as parable: “Some time ago…There was an Ojibwe man who got a little sick and wandered West.” It’s the start of an unfinished story — or, as is the case with apologues, many stories — and Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s debut is one possible version. Here, the wandering Ojibwe man is Mawka (Michael Greyeyes), a hugely successful businessman who dons pink polos for golf outings, has a blonde trophy wife (Kate Bosworth) and an immaculate home, and who now goes by the anglicized name Michael. But the root of his sickness begins in the ’80s on an unnamed Native American reservation, where the film’s first quarter takes place. Young Mawka (Phoenix Wilson) is severely abused at home and routinely bullied at school — even his scratchy tenor voice bears a distinct woundedness. Comparatively, his best friend Ted-O (Julian Gopal) seems blessed with a more stable existence, his jovial nonchalance attesting to a presumed lack of familial or social disturbance. Corbine Jr.’s aesthetic approach neatly matches the mixed tenor of these two lives: swirling images of forested beauty, the camera sometimes dipping to ground-level to glide through overgrown prairie grass, are contrasted by the film’s eerie, melancholic drone and strings score. But after Mawka commits a shocking act of violence and the pair agree to stay silent, the film skips ahead roughly 30 years to examine the duo’s dissimilar paths. (It’s interesting to note that while the film mostly abandons its fluid, artful aesthetic after this temporal skip, the score remains the same but takes on a distinctly more sinister feel within the new context.)
Narratively, the film never fully recovers from this jump. Wild Indian proceeds fairly contentedly according to a familiar template: two childhood friends, from different sides of the tracks in their own way, grow into adults fated to very opposite destinies. It does add wrinkles, however, and what keeps such pro forma plotting interesting — insofar as it can be considered interesting — is the film’s refusal to moralize. As these things go, both men are, despite their disparate circumstances, haunted — Ted-O (Chaske Spencer) is just being released from prison while Michael is a self-made man commanding respect — and the causes of their drastic divergence are left implicit. But Michael’s psychological makeup is certainly the most fascinating thing here. A series of escalating scenes — Michael’s manipulation of his own Native identity, his evident consternation when he finds out his wife is expecting another child, his request (and subsequent follow-through) to choke a dancer at a club in exchange for a wad of cash — suggest that his early violence may have lingered and transformed him into an emotionless sadist. But Corbine Jr. recognizes the dead end this predictable development would lead to, and instead continues to complicate the man; we come to see Michael as someone who, more than merely haunted, has also been unfettered by his brush with violence, weaponizing and re-directing its power toward his many successes. The idea that traumatized people continue to perpetuate trauma isn’t a new or particularly interesting idea in its own right, but the way it’s presented here is, as Michael’s small cruelties alternately play out as proactive and reactive: he either seems to be micro-dosing violence or exorcising his latent brutality to stave off something worse.
More interesting, and hinted at throughout, are the metaphorical implications of lingering colonialist violence and cultural warfare with which Native populations must contend, particularly in their pursuit of American success. If we understand the epigraph’s use of “West” to mean western civilization, which seems likely, the film’s psychological and sociological connotations are immense. Unfortunately, such a reading isn’t made obvious outside of the film’s title, and in its absence, Wild Indian is mere character study. It’s at least a consistent and deceptively nuanced portrait of trauma, which Corbine Jr. confirms in the film’s bravura ending. After an inevitable confrontation between the two old friends leaves Ted-O dead and Michael gunshot, and after escaping any accountability for his past actions, an exhausted Michael returns home. His wife asks about the state of his wound, which he then shows her. Her pained face sparks something in him, and he notes, his defenses falling and tears starting to streak, “There’s been worse.” Understanding the significance if not the details, she replies, “It’s awful,” at which he crumbles into her arms. It’s a palliative moment, one that holds an entire life’s pain, in which this man’s sickness is not cured but is at least finally greeted.
Originally published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 4.