Issues of identity, assimilation and the contemporary Native American experience run deep beneath Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr.’s feature debut “Wild Indian,” while the relatively conventional surface narrative is one that any filmmaker could have told, albeit in a less original context. Watching “Wild Indian,” I was reminded of “Moonlight,” with its three distinct time periods. “Wild Indian” has two, but is bookended by long-ago scenes of its lead actor, Michael Greeneyes, dressed in furs and brandishing a bow and arrow, his face scarred by smallpox. Corbine’s film is more conventional, and not nearly as well acted, but it explores a similar kind of inner turmoil and the personal journey to accept oneself.
In the first act, set on the reservation, Corbine introduces an orphan Ojibwe teen naked Makwa (Phoenix Wilson), who is abused at home and bullied at school, which likely explains an unforgivable decision he can’t undo: While playing with guns one afternoon in the woods, he spies the source of his resentment across the clearing and shoots him dead, much to the surprise of tagalong best friend Ted-O (Julian Gopal). More shocking still, Makwa returns to the site a few days later and further defiles the grave. Like a ghost from his past, the guilt of that crime — which Makwa, who now calls himself Michael (Greyeyes), had buried along with the body — emerges decades later, disrupting the life the now-big-city Native has built for himself.
In the present (technically, 2019, so pre-pandemic), Michael is married to a beautiful blonde woman (Kate Bosworth) and well positioned for a promotion at work. He plays golf with his clients, but wears his hair in a ponytail. As office friend Jerry (Jesse Eisenberg, also a producer) awkwardly puts it, Michael’s look “checks all the right boxes” — although I can think of only one: Native American. It’s a known fact that many white/white-collar employers discourage appearances that don’t conform, but in Michael’s case, his background is clearly more of a factor in than obstacle to his newfound success.
Evidently, Corbine can relate, suggesting in a director’s note (included with the press materials, but not attached to the film) that “Wild Indian” is the most personal thing he’s ever written. One can sense a connection between Corbine and the character he has created, although it’s not clear how much of the resentment Michael shows is shared by the filmmaker. Corbine never killed a classmate in cold blood, obviously, though the murder could also be read as symbolic — his way of exterminating some part of himself, which he’s ultimately forced to repeat years later, when confronted by his past. How far has the director distanced himself from his own Ojibwe background, and to what extent could “Wild Indian” be read as a reconciliation with his roots?
Such questions lend a dimension of psychological interest to a portrait that’s ultimately more ambitious than it is successful. As in “Moonlight,” the adult actors look so different from their younger selves that it can be somewhat jarring to adjust, but it’s even trickier here, without a third time period to establish continuity. Wilson is a striking actor whose high, hesitant Michael Jackson voice doesn’t fit with his angry scowl and somewhat hulking presence. He’s bigger than his peers, but is picked on by everyone, and so it seems reasonable to expect that he’d toughen up with time — which he has, although Greyeyes plays that transformation on the inside. It’s hard to believe we’re looking at the same person. Then again, that’s kind of the point.
Observing Michael, we see a seductive, Tom Ripley-like sociopath, which the barely 80-minute movie could have spent more time exploring. What do his kinky strip-club visits mean, and why does he seem unmoved by news of his wife’s pregnancy? “Wild Indian” elides too much between the character’s childhood and what he has become, and it’s not enough — or perhaps too much — to include a sermon by the school priest that seems to lay out the movie’s entire moral philosophy.
“Resentment and unwillingness to accept responsibility will bring a scourge of unnecessary suffering,” he preaches. Michael’s grievances run deeper than resenting those who pushed him around as a kid. It’s unfortunate that Corbine front-loads the movie with all the “answers,” rather than revealing flashbacks to youth via nonlinear (and possibly unreliable) memories. “Wild Indian” would be more interesting — both as a thriller and a test of the audience’s preconceived biases — if we first met Michael as an adult, trusted by his wife and friends, then watched as he fights to maintain this image of himself as the secrets come out.
When we meet Ted-O again, he’s even more unlike the terrified kid we saw in that field. Now played by Chaske Spencer in the film’s strongest performance, his face looks tight like a fist, covered in tattoos. The character has been to prison, but at first, it’s not clear why. We might reasonably assume he took the rap for Makwa’s crime, when in fact, his sentence turns out to be drug-related. Whereas Michael moved on and reinvented, Ted-O represents a kind of worst-case version of what could happen to someone stuck behind on the reservation. But appearances can be deceiving, and the scenes in which he tries to rebuild, despite a guilty conscience and criminal record, suggest another, more uplifting path the film could have taken.
Developed in the Sundance labs and premiering at the 2021 virtual film festival, “Wild Indian” doesn’t quite add up, but it heralds an important new voice — not just because of his Native American heritage (although that plays a central role to this project’s concerns), but even more on account of the complexity he’s willing to acknowledge in his characters. So many movies rush to assign reductive labels of good and evil, whereas “Wild Indian” wants to understand all the competing pressures on its protagonist. That’s a taller order than Corbine can fill here, but it points to an indie filmmaker with more interesting ambitions than being signed to the next Marvel movie.