There have been few movies by and about Native Americans to receive even modest critical attention. More often than not, Natives receive representation from outside. Aside from recognizable hits like Chris Eyre’s excellent Smoke Signals and the more recent TV series, Reservation Dogs, Native lives are typically shown through a white lens for the purposes of sanitized American History lessons, if not just reduced to scenery in old westerns. Little has been done to elevate stories about Indigenous justice and modernity in a way that doesn’t center whiteness but still acknowledges the inextricable impact of U.S. colonialism. This makes Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr. ‘s debut a welcome reconfiguration of the white-indigenous dynamic. Where images of Native Americans are often appropriated to tell white people something about themselves, Wild Indian explores whiteness through a Native lens in service of examining ongoing issues relating to reservations, generational trauma, and Indian identity.
In Oklahoma in the 1980s, Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) is a beleaguered Indian kid attending a Catholic school. At home he’s the victim of some horrific (though only ever implied) domestic violence. His best friend and cousin, Ted-O (Julian Gopal), can relate to him somewhat, being from the same impoverished reservation, but he also seems to come from a far more stable family situation. In addition to deeply entrenched racism and poverty, Makwa suffers from common adolescent anxieties—jealousy, insecurity, bullying. One of the biggest attributes of the movie becomes immediately clear through Makwa, namely that casting makes up for a lot of the intentional vagueness in the script. The remarkable Phoenix Wilson has many useful physical qualities for the part— beaming, narrowed eyes and a low brow perfect for a kid that seems to only ever be wincing or scowling at any moment, prominent indigenous features that potentially make him more of a target than the otherwise ethnically ambiguous Julian Gopal, and a soft and breathy voice that betrays that sensitive and vulnerable child beneath.
A volley of circumstances drives Makwa towards something irrevocable. The increasing abuse from his Dad and neglect from his Mom nearly comes to a head when Makwa stands over the sleeping couple with a knife, only for this final and fatal act to be deterred by his Mom waking up. Although Makwa is not made to seem villainous, the sense that he’s a ticking time bomb always runs parallel to the deep empathy he invokes. While Makwa and Ted-O play with a hunting rifle in the woods, Makwa sees the classmate he’s jealous of passing through. Without a thought or change of expression, Makwa casually points and shoots, killing the boy. The odd quietude of this moment and its complete unexpectedness oddly makes it all the more explosive. Makwa has no chance to consider his actions before taking them, and Ted-O has no inclination of the trauma he’s just been thrust into. They successfully cover up the murder, but this moment will become the turning point for both of their lives in significant but mysterious ways.
In the present day, Makwa (Michael Greyeyes, in a chilling and intense performance) has somehow escaped his destitute conditions and become a highly successful and wealthy businessman. He has a beautiful, blonde wife (Kate Bosworth) and a son, and an expensive-looking house adorned with modernized native art. Ted-O (Chaske Spencer) has taken a nosedive since childhood. He’s just now being released from one of several prison terms. However, the level of aggression within them hasn’t changed. Ted-O is mostly self punishing, racked with guilt and ashamed of the neck and face tattoos he’s given himself to appear tough in prison. Makwa is cold and belittling to his wife, and seems to harbour a ruthlessness in his work and violent sexual fantasy life. While Ted-O’s release from prison sees him toggling between attempts at rebuilding his familial relationships and throwing away his freedom, once again, in order to achieve absolution from the family of the boy he helped bury, Makwa makes continuous strides in the impersonal, status-driven world of white commerce, a willing participant in his company’s facade of a diverse workplace.
Makwa and Ted-O represent two different extremes, the former being the negotiation of Indian identity and white acceptance and the latter a troubled and difficult but morally pure adherence to Native culture, the good and the bad. Both come at an obvious cost, but the price for Makwa seems to be his soul. The tragic, sympathetic kid he once was has transformed into somewhat of a monster, someone with no values other than self-preservation. He’s sacrificed any and all decency to achieve the acceptance from white culture that he craved since childhood, the ultimate escape from the violence at home and the judgement of his peers in the form of safe but demoralizing tokenism. The covert control he exercises over his wife and the disturbing treatment of sex workers he’s seen to frequent act as release valves for his feelings of powerlessness. When the two men’s paths inevitably cross, the collision between self-acceptance and self-loathing, greed and generosity, avoidance and accountability, results in yet another irreversible act of violence.
These powerful and thought-provoking ideas make Wild Indian a film worthy of praise and attention, although one wishes that Corbine, Jr. had been able to find a greater balance between subtlety and obviousness. In an attempt to keep the movie from being didactic, he sometimes leaves out a bit too much. It’s important to point out that, as a white critic, there are things that likely will go over my head, certain nuances that will instantly resonate with Native viewers that I’m not giving the movie credit for. Still, the lack of any depiction of the time between the murder in the 80s and the present day leaves a lot to the imagination. The transition of Makwa from victim to perpetrator had ample opportunity to highlight the influence of white assimilation and poisonous capitalist ideology through incremental changes instead of the sudden switch we receive from the time jump. As it is, the film has enough to get its point across, but it still left me wanting more. Thankfully, this is a compliment to Corbine Jr.’s talent at drawing compelling characters and evocative stories that have the power to keep us coming back for more. And hopefully, from him, there will be. | Nic Champion