By Jordan King
In his feature directorial debut Wild Indian, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. reimagines the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel as a contemporary tale of two Ojibwean men whose lives are overshadowed and overrun by an act of extreme violence committed in their youth.
We first meet Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) and Ted’o (Julian Gopal) as two young boys living on a reservation in the American Midwest in the 1980s. Abused at home, ostracised at school, Makwa’s high-pitched Michael Jackson like voice does nothing to diminish the fact that he looks and acts like a man many years older and more jaded than his age. His best friend Ted’o has less three-dimensionality to him, likely intentionally so – he follows Makwa loyally and helps him lift his dad’s rifle for some thrills after another dull day at their Catholic school.
At some point as the boys roam a stretch of desolate woodland, Ted’o disappears for a little while. In the moments Makwa finds himself alone and armed, he spots a classmate from the reservation walking nearby and shoots him in the face. When Ted’o hears the shot and comes running, his shock turns to silent complicity as he helps Makwa bury the boy’s body (‘You buried him like a dog’ his mother later crushingly remarks). With the police disinterested in the disappearance of indigenous boys who they presume simply wander off and commit suicide somewhere, Makwa and Ted’o keep their secret and don’t get caught.
The film then fast-forwards to the present day. An adult Makwa (Michael Greyeyes), now going by ‘Michael Peterson’ in an act of disassociation and disavowal of his roots and his past, works as a business executive in California. Between rounds of golf, cosy conversations with jittery office pal Jerry (Jesse Eisenberg), and marriage to a trophy wife (Kate Bosworth), Makwa presents to all intents and purposes as an idealised man.
Beneath the surface however, somewhere deep within his muscular frame and beyond the reach of his blood-stained hands, Makwa cannot escape his sin. When in a quiet moment he stands by his infant son, Makwa hopes that he will become ‘a good and normal man’. That same night, Makwa clandestinely visits a strip-club and pays a stripper to choke her within an inch of her life. This act of depravity could be one of two things – maybe Makwa’s violent streak is simply untameable and he performs this ritual to let the monster within loose, or maybe Makwa sees some perverse redemption in the act of bringing another human to within an inch of death and then letting them live. Either way, Greyeyes’ emotionally cold, physically imposing performance ensures you would never want to sit down with him and find out.
Whilst Makwa has made every effort to internalise his demons and construct a new identity to eradicate the horrors of his youth, when we meet Ted’o as an adult, now played by a phenomenal Chaske Spencer, it is clear that time has been less kind to the kid who followed his friend blindly. Coming out of a decade long stint in prison for drug-related offences, Ted’o cuts a forlorn figure marked deeply and surfacially by his guilt. A paw-print tattoo on Ted’o’s face bears poignant relevance as the boy he helped bury belonged to the Wolf family. In the interest of following through on the Biblical parallels with Cain and Abel, Ted’o’s tattoo suggests that he has chosen to mark himself in judgment to spare being marked by God. When he and Makwa later meet, the mark left on Makwa is one no name change or golf session or bunch of flowers can erase . Whilst so little remains in Ted’o’s control in his life, try as he might to rehabilitate and reintegrate in the community and in his family’s lives, his ownership of his trauma has a quiet stoicism that is silently heartbreaking.
As Makwa and Ted’o’s paths reconverge following a stunning scene in which Ted’o visits the mother of the murdered boy and breaks down in confession, the ghosts of these men’s pasts catch up with them and scar them anew in increasingly harrowing and hard to watch ways.
Whilst only just shy of ninety minutes long, Wild Indian is a slow-burn. With long takes, long stretches of silence, and an aesthetic quality and palette that rejects modernity to nestle the narrative comfortably in an allegoric, timeless mode of storytelling, Corbine Jr. exhibits great maturity and confidence in his debut. Though at times the languorous pacing slips into periods of lethargy, the fatalistic plot and Greyeyes and Spencer’s remarkable lead performances carry the film onwards with purpose.
Tackling identity crises, the weight of the Native American populace’s fraught relationship with their lineage, and the price one is willing to pay to extinguish the ghosts and transgressions of their past, Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s Wild Indian is a tempestuous film that haunts in ways that are hard to forget.
Wild Indian played as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021