Sundance highlight ‘Wild Indian’ is somber portrait of contemporary Native life

Photo of Wild Indian Movie
Sundance Institute/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival’s lineup is chock-full of directorial debuts, such as Prano Bailey-Bond’s “Censor” and Robin Wright’s “Land.” “Wild Indian” is another such debut film, but viewers wouldn’t be faulted for assuming otherwise. Writer-director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. displays an impressive, confident authorial voice in his first film — a quality many grizzled filmmaking veterans still struggle to achieve.

Initially set in the 1980s, “Wild Indian” is the story of Makwa, who is first seen as a young boy growing up in an abusive home on a Wisconsin reservation. Enduring daily beatings from his alcoholic father and ineffectual preachings at his Catholic school, Makwa’s sole comfort is his friend Ted-O. When Makwa reaches a breaking point, however, a senseless act of violence changes both their lives forever.

Though the remainder of “Wild Indian” is set in the present day (or rather 2019, so as to avoid the pandemic), this opening act is so stark and compelling that its impact continues to resonate throughout everything that follows. This is due in great part to Corbine’s poignant writing, which illustrates a nuanced understanding of the generational trauma and internalized hatred seen in Makwa. Perhaps more instrumental, however, is Phoenix Wilson’s remarkable performance — the young actor perfectly evokes the quiet rage boiling within Makwa as he struggles against dispossession.

As an adult (Michael Greyeyes), Makwa has reinvented himself under the name “Michael Peterson.” He’s successful, living in a luxurious apartment in California and married to the beautiful Greta (Kate Bosworth), with whom he shares a son. In the decades that have elapsed, Michael has fully assimilated, largely repressing his Native American heritage and embracing it only as a convenient asset that might help him be selected for a promotion over his white colleague due to a corporate culture that values the appearance of diversity.

When Michael asks a coworker (Jesse Eisenberg, for some reason) about his ponytail, it’s evident that he understands the racist office politics at play here. Michael, ill at ease about his Native background, is initially worried the ponytail is growing too long but agrees when Eisenberg’s character notes that it “checks all the right boxes.”

Greyeyes’ Michael is far more self-assured and assertive than he was as a child, but echoes of his troubled youth are still visible beneath the surface. Greyeyes particularly shines in moments when this inner self flares up, such as in Michael’s conflicted, subdued emotional response to the news that Greta is pregnant with his second child. Michael’s deep-seated rage at his own lineage and fear of passing on his own trauma underscores much of his story. He explains, seething with anger: “We’re the descendants of cowards. Everyone worthwhile died fighting.”

An equally strong performance is delivered by Chaske Spencer, who plays the adult Ted-O. Just released from prison, Ted-O has changed in very different ways than Michael — adorned with face tattoos and dogged by a rough life with few opportunities, Ted-O attempts to leave his difficult past behind. Unable to reconcile that fateful incident with Makwa, however, Ted-O sets out to California to confront his childhood friend.

Corbine’s winding narrative always keeps viewers in dreaded anticipation for the next big story beat and, more importantly, continues to surprise through to the end. Stellar performances make each moment reverberate, packing “Wild Indian” with unforgettable scenes. Beginning with Wilson, each performer winds the tension up higher than previously thought possible — the only actor sorely miscast is Eisenberg (also a producer), whose familiar schtick is jarringly distracting in this brooding, bleak atmosphere.

Still, Eisenberg’s appearance is a minor chink in an otherwise carefully crafted expression of cultural rage and generational trauma. “Wild Indian” holds viewers in a vise grip of suspense, assuring them that Corbine will be a filmmaker to watch in the future.

Neil Haeems is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].