“Some time ago, there was an Objiwe man who got sick and wandered West ….” Initially, there seems to be a disconnect between the opening lines – and the accompanying images – of Lyle Mitchell Corbine Junior’s feature debut, Wild Indian. But stick with it because, as the past and the present gradually overlap, the significance of those words becomes apparent, well before it’s explained. Just be prepared to invest some time.
That’s not to say it’s overlong – it’s a regulation 90 minutes – but the film takes its time with both narrative and themes. Teenager Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) lives on a reservation and is having a rough time at home at the hands of his abusive father. He finds some consolation in the friendship of his cousin Ted-O (Julian Gopal). But his pent-up anger spills over one day when, without warning, he shoots another boy and the two teens cover it up. Thirty five years later, Makwa is now Michael (Michael Greyeyes), enjoying a successful career in California and the comfortable family lifestyle it brings. The years have been less kind to Ted-O (Chasske Spencer) who, after his release from prison, is consumed with guilt about what happened all those years ago, tracks down his cousin and confronts him. With the truth about his past staring him in the face, Makwa has too much to lose and takes drastic action.
It’s a film where the past is very much in the present, and manifests itself in just about every way possible. There’s Michael’s appearance – he wears his hair in a neat ponytail – which, as work colleague Jerry (a cameo from Jesse Eisenberg) describes it, “checks all the right boxes.” And Michael agrees. He may have spent years trying to negate his heritage, but it still has advantages. The violence he experienced in his teens translated itself into the death of the other boy, and it lingers on beneath his slicked back exterior as we see later in his chillingly sociopathic behaviour. It’s also where Greyeyes’ performance comes into its own: his flat delivery and cold eyes are deeply unnerving.
Corbine Junior’s film is riddled with guilt, but is so pared to the bone that the pacing suffers, as does its ability to examine its themes in significant depth. The struggle for a sense of identity is constantly there, from Michael’s outward rejection of his heritage to Ted-O’s tattoos – OJIBWE aggressively etched on his throat and a bear claw outlined on his face – as well as his retention of his original name. It’s only when the two come together in the later stages of the movie and their different attempts to confront their respective demons are thrown into contrast that we truly have something to invest in.
On the plus side, Wild Indian is taut with a precisely judged, edgy tone that continually unsettles. Less satisfying is its examination of its themes and its psychological portrait never quite lives up to its ambitions. But it’s a film that marks an arrival, one that shows talent and a distinctive voice. And that’s always more than welcome.
Drama, Thriller | Cert: 15 | Vertigo Releasing | London Film Festival 2021, 13, 14, 15 October 2021 | Cinemas, 29 October 2021 | Dir. Lyle Mitchell Corbine Junior | Michael Greyeyes, Chasske Spencer, Jesse Eisenberg, Kate Bosworth, Phoenix Wilson, Julian Gopal.