Debut filmmaker Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. barely wastes a minute with this tight and haunting story of cyclical violence in America
It’s in the voice. As a young boy on the cusp of teenagerhood (played by Phoenix Wilson), Makwa’s voice is high-pitched and frightful, barely broken. Trapped by poverty and abusive parents, it reflects somebody pained and confused by the turmoil he is put through, much of which he can barely understand. He responds with anger and rage, but it’s the anger of someone terrified, who can hardly keep it together, voice betraying the outward display of toughness.
As a man (played by Michael Greyeyes), Makwa is an altogether different being. His voice is calm, deep, and sonorous. There is gravitas to the way he carries himself. But beneath that layer of authority, there is a quiver in the background every time he speaks, a frequency of uncertainty. It’s as if he is running away or hiding from something.
He is. In Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s debut feature Wild Indian, the boy Makwa impulsively shoots a classmate dead, forcing his best friend, the gentle Ted-O (Julian Gopal as a boy, Chaske Spencer as an adult), to cover up his crime. As an adult, Ted-O becomes mired in a cycle of drugs, crime and prison, whilst Makwa becomes a successful businessman on the West Coast, fully assimilated into white American culture, replete with a name change (the Anglicised “Michael Peterson”) and a doting blonde wife (Kate Bosworth). But Ted-O, consumed by guilt, leaves prison and confronts Makwa, forcing the past into the present.
Corbine makes the most of his meagre budget, crafting a film that is evocative and tight, with barely a minute wasted. Much of it rests on the twin performances of Greyeyes and Spencer, both of whom do exceptional work here – a reminder of the depth of character actor quality that lies out there in TV and film but is so rarely given the chance to take centre stage. Greyeyes is utterly magnetic, whilst Spencer is more volatile. The former has suppressed the past deep inside himself; the latter has been pummelled by it.
How Makwa becomes Michael Peterson remains tantalisingly unanswered, but the privileges he gains from his assimilation into white culture is clear, as is the underlying background of violence that those privileges are built on. His present day life displays hints of his past – his ponytail at work, labelled “his brand” by a snivelling underling played by Jesse Eisenberg, and there’s a giant stencil of a pop art Native American in Makwa's kitchen – but they’re deliberately performative, enriching the complexity of the character study that forms the film's narrative heart.
Scenes of violence are few and far between in Wild Indian, but when they do come they are ugly, short, clumsy and shocking – reminiscent of Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin (itself ruminating on cycles of unanswered justice, violence and trauma). But where Blue Ruin focuses on a post-financial crash working class, Wild Indian looks at America through the eyes of its First Peoples, and the structural marginalisation and oppression they have long since suffered.
Wild Indian is now available to rent and buy on various digital platforms.Where to watch