Identity concerns, assimilation and modern Native American experience run deep under the feature debut of Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., “Wild Indian,” while the surface tale, albeit in a less original sense, is one that any director might have said. The “Wild Indian” Watching,
With its three distinct time spans, I was reminded of “Moonlight.” Wild Indian” has two, but its lead actor, Michael Greyeyes, dressed in furs and brandishing a bow and arrow, is bookended by long-ago scenes, his face scarred by smallpox.” The film by Corbine is more traditional, and not almost as well acted, but it examines a similar kind of inner struggle and the personal process of embracing oneself.
Corbine introduces an orphan Ojibwe teen named Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) in the first act, set on the reservation, who is tortured at home and bullied at school, which possibly describes an unforgivable choice he can’t undo:
He spots the object of his anger through the clearing while playing with guns one afternoon in the woods and shoots him dead, much to the horror of tag-along best friend Ted-O-along (Julian Gopal). Decades later, like a phantom from his past, the shame of that crime returns, disturbing the life that Makwa, who now calls himself Michael (Greyeyes), has created in a faraway city for himself.
Michael is married to a stunning blond woman (Kate Bosworth) in the present (technically, 2019, so pre-pandemic), and well placed for a raise at work. For his customers, he plays golf, but keeps his hair in a ponytail.
As Jerry (Jesse Eisenberg, also a producer) uncomfortably puts it, Michael’s look “checks all the right boxes.” “Exactly,” says Michael, realizing that his ethnicity is an asset in the light of diversity in the workplace, even though he has spent years trying to remove it.
Corbine can clearly relate, indicating in a director’s note (included with the press materials, but not attached to the film) that the most personal thing he’s ever written is “Wild Indian.” A link between Corbine and the character he has developed can be felt, but it is not clear how much of the anger displayed by Michael is shared by the filmmaker.
Obviously, Corbine never killed a classmate in cold blood, but the crime could also be read as symbolic, his way of exterminating some aspect of himself, which, when faced by his experience, he is finally compelled to repeat years later. How far from his own Ojibwe history has the director distanced himself, and to what degree could “Wild Indian” be viewed as a reunion with his root?
Such questions offer a psychological interest dimension to a portrait that is eventually more ambitious than it is successful. As in “Moonlight,” the adult actors appear so different from their younger self that adapting can be very jarring, but here, without a third span of time to create continuity, it’s much trickier.
Wilson is a striking actor who doesn’t match his furious scowl and very hulking appearance with his high, tentative Michael Jackson accent. Makwa is bigger than his classmates, but everybody chooses him, so it seems fair to think that he can toughen up with the time he has, even though Greyeyes plays the inside transformation. It’s difficult to accept that we’re looking at the same person.