Written by: Heidi Shepler | September 3rd, 2021
Wild Indian (Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., 2021) 4 out of 4 stars.
Wild Indian is an extraordinary film. Writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., making his feature debut, has created a subversive, literary tragedy. A good analogy for Wild Indian’s approach to past and present, culture and psychology, is a palimpsest, a book or manuscript in which some of the lines are continually, haphazardly erased and written over, but the original words remain visible. The film stacks layer upon layer of historical injustice and personal trauma, and never lets us flinch. We don’t even have the luxury of retreating into nihilism, because as unsympathetic as some of the characters are, there are others in similar circumstances who are loving and kind.
The film opens with an intertitle: “Some time ago, there was an Ojibwe man who got a little sick and wandered west.” We are not initially encouraged to think that the Ojibwe man in question might be Makwa (Michael Greyeyes, Blood Quantum), but I can’t help wondering. After an incredibly traumatic childhood, Makwa is determined to leave the reservation behind and make a new life for himself. He changes his name to Michael, moves west to California, gets a high-paying job, marries a blonde white woman, and has a child. If that were all, this film might be an examination of the material benefits versus the emotional poverty of cultural assimilation. But it’s not all: a few years before he left home, young Makwa (Phoenix Wilson, Indian Horse) murdered someone. We see the terror, despair, and the potential for reactive violence simmering just below the surface in the little time we spend with Makwa in his teen years, so the surprise is not that he commits murder. Rather, it’s who he kills. Instead of his physically abusive father, or his neglectful mother, or the bullies at his school, he murders a classmate he’s jealous of.
There is a short scene in Makwa’s school, when his Christian teacher discusses the story of Cain and Abel through the lens of sacrifice and jealousy. “Cain did sacrifice parts of himself, but nothing worthy of God. And so he was rejected—and not only did he suffer unnecessarily, but he tortured those who were innocent.” This seems to be the trajectory of Makwa’s life. He certainly makes sacrifices: his joy, his tenderness, his vulnerability, and his ability to connect with others in any way are all gone by the time he raises the gun. As an adult, Makwa is precise and cold. And there’s still that anger, which is the only emotion he seems able to process. So when his childhood friend Ted-O (Chaske Spencer, Woman Walks Ahead) reappears and sets the rest of the plot in motion, the consequences are tragic but not surprising.
Wild Indian is a film to be experienced, thought about, rewatched and discussed. There isn’t space in a short review to give credit to the writing, cinematography and sound design. Not to mention the incredible acting from Michael Greyeyes, Chaske Spencer, and Phoenix Wilson. Why did Makwa get “a little sick,” and why did he “wander west,” both geographically and culturally? Could anything have been done, any intervention have been made, to save a quiet, lonely boy from becoming a heartless murderer? The film doesn’t offer concrete answers to these questions. But it does suggest that breaking the cycle of generational trauma is possible, which, while hopeful, makes Makwa’s and Ted-O’s fates all the more heartbreaking.