Wild Indian starts out looking like it’s going to be a film about a troubled kid, abused at home, struggling at school, who suddenly takes matters into his own hands and does something heinous. It turns out to be a film about the two grown-ups involved in that heinous event – the guy who did it, and the friend who was there when it happened.
We first meet Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) and Ted-o (Julian Gopal), a pair of Native American kids cusping on puberty. Makwa isn’t having too good a time of it – beaten at home, bullied at school, unable to get the girl he fancies – and in a moment of rash madness, while out in the woods with Ted-o one day, he impulsively shoots and kills his love rival. Ted-o is horrified but loyally helps his friend bury the body.
That’s the spoilerish setup. The payoff is actually what the film is about, so not too spoilerish then. Decades down the line, Makwa is a successful dude in California, with a lovely home, a beautiful wife (Kate Bosworth), a child and another on the way. Handsome, tall, self-confident, a mile away from the plubby withdrawn kid of yore. And yet there is something not right about Makwa, who now calls himself Michael, a coolness that could merely be poor interpersonal skills, or might be psychopathic tendencies carefully masked. Michael Greyeyes, who plays the grown-up Makwa, is tending towards the latter, but there’s enough leeway in his performance that it could be either.
Meanwhile, just getting out of prison and with a tattoo on his face, is Ted-o (now played by Chaske Spencer, in a beautifully tortured performance). The innocent one, remember, has clearly gone to the bad and has spent most of his life thus far locked up. This time he’s left prison determined to make things different, and so re-connects with his sister and her kid, gets a job and tries to put the past behind him. That includes dealing with the thing between Mako and himself, which has clearly never been spoken about since.
A thrillerish drama about old guilt staking a claim on the present is the result, the wrinkle in writer director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr’s debut feature being that it’s the guilty guy who’s had the golden life, his solid friend who’s taken the hit, as if he just happened to be on sineating duty that day. Cape Fear was in similar territory, both the original 1962 version and Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake.
Also like Cape Fear, inner psychological states are expressed via externals – an alienated camera, music designed to keep us just out of the comfort zone – and there’s the odd plot event dropped in to remind us just who the bad guy and the good guy really are here. Don’t be fooled by the way they look.
Given how much US movies romanticise resourceful individualism and survival against the odds, you’d have thought there’d be more featuring Native Americans, especially since we’re now two generations on (at least) since Hollywood got its revisionist view of the “Red Indian” up and running with the likes of 1950’s Broken Arrow.
Corbine Jr insists that this is a movie about Native Americans, rather than just a story that happens to feature them, by bookending his tale with flashbacks to “the last Ojibwe” of his tribe, a man covered in pustules (possibly smallpox, possibly picked up from a European). Is the modern psychopathy of Makwa, the recidivism of Ted-o, a manifestation of a similar white man’s infection? If so, it’s a very clumsy one.
There’s also a hint of ethnic essentialism (the upbeat kissing cousin of out-and-out racism) here and there, like Ted-o heading off to the woods at one point to sleep in a tent, because Native Americans need to connect to the earth, or something.
This film needs neither of those distractions, nor does it particularly need Jesse Eisenberg in it, playing Makwa/Michael’s almost entirely unnecessary work colleague, though the demands of international sales and marketing have their own logic, and Eisenberg is an exec producer so hey. By which I mean it works entirely on its own terms, as a good story of the processing of human guilt by two quite different personalities. One who feels too much, and the other nowhere near enough.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021