SUNDANCE Review: ‘Wild Indian’ Is A Riveting Thriller About The Inescapability Of Our Past

Actor Michael Greyeyes in Wild Indian

Wild Indian, directed by Lynne Mitchell Corbine Jr., is a film that focuses on the impact of actions, and how it influences us throughout our lives. Inevitably, we are unable to hide from our decisions and the experiences that mold us. The film follows Makwa and Ted-o as children and then as adults confronting their actions in the past. The story and acting are strong and lean. Nothing drags, although certain parts feel unnecessary. However, the film explores cycles of abuse and trauma in this craftily-constructed thriller.

When Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) and Ted-o (Julian Gopal) are children, Makwa’s life is filled with fear and pain. His father’s abuse and his mother’s disinterest leave him scared and alone. The only exception is Makwa’s only friend, Ted-o. They spend their time hanging out in the woods, with Ted-o teaching him how to shoot. Makwa becomes focused on a fellow classmate, who is dating a white girl and appears to have a mom that loves him. He murders a classmate and, with the help of Ted-o, covers it up. Years later an adult Makwa (Michael Greyeyes) and Ted-o (Chaske Spencer) have to confront their past. 

Acting Is Hypnotic and Michael Greyeyes Is Wonderful

Phoenix Wilson and Michael Greyeyes both depict Makwa’s violent trajectory perfectly. Michael Greyeyes is an underrated actor. He brings depth, talent and empathy to any role he takes on. Makwa is sociopathic but also displays so much pain alongside his anger. The tragedy is, given Makwa’s violent upbringing he chooses to blame Native people. He equates Indigenous people with violence, cowardice, and narcissism. Admittedly it’s his youth that hinders him as he can’t see the larger picture of how westernization, and colonialism created the environment of poverty and struggle that fosters violence. It’s tragic how often violence in a community is blamed as a defect of the group without seeing the intricacies of the system that impoverishes and entraps them. He is a child, so of course, Makwa sees the difference between him and James—a white blonde girl—and believes that is why James’ life is better than his. He sees the difference as James’ proximity to white people and western ideals. 

Wild Indian director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.
Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., director of Wild Indian, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Joel Feld.

This is precisely why Makwa sheds almost all aspects of his Indigeneity, from his name to his location because of his attribution of negative actions with Indigeneity. He has a successful business where he works with white people, married a white woman with blonde hair, and even attends and prays in a Catholic church, but he is finally realizing that these things he has acquired don’t save him. He struggles because he hasn’t reconciled his past or his actions. 

Chaske Spencer as Ted-o is a perfect counter to Michael Greyeyes. His acting shows a man living in torment, day in and day out with little respite. Ted-o has been in and out of prison and while he also struggles with their shared past, he clearly punishes himself. The tattoos on his face, the “evil” tattooed across his fingers is how he views himself. He doesn’t fault Indigenous people or the community at large. He blames himself and feels undeserving because he hasn’t faced his past. Though he has so much suffering in his eyes, he also wants people to push him away on sight. He wants their judgement. 

Strong Direction Combines To Make A Dark Thrilling Story

The directing is strong and shots feel essential to capturing the emotions of those on screen. The only parts that felt unnecessary, perhaps even out of character were the scenes depicting violence against women. It doesn’t go over the top with violence but still it is traumatic and didn’t feel essential to show the character or drive the story. We already understand the violence seething beneath this character and the inescapability of it. He can’t reconcile it because he still faults his heritage. 

This film is dark and, at times, violent; however, none of that detracts from the beauty, truth and necessity of this film. It gives us a glimpse into a world many of us don’t know and we need that. We need Indigineous people to tell their stories. Too many films that explore other cultures and communities fail because it’s all from the white gaze, which either distances the impact and emotions or goes for trauma to rile up white viewers. We need more than that; more than recurrent stagnant storytelling. Any art—painting, directing, writing, photography, dancing—is told through the lens of the creator. So we need to move beyond the limitations of art through white lenses. The past is not solely Makwa’s and Ted-o’s, but the lack of help for abused children and the past and present of colonial white supremacy that creates this environment and cycle of violence.

We also emphatically need Michael Greyeyes in more roles. 

Wild Indian trailer from Vertical Entertainment via Youtube

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