‘Wild Indian’: Film Review | Sundance 2021

Two Indigenous men reckon with a horrific event in their past in Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s debut feature, executive produced by Jesse Eisenberg.

Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s feature debut represents indie cinema at its most stark and elemental. Depicting the fateful aftermath of a horrific act of senseless violence committed by a young Indigenous boy, Wild Indian has the feel of Greek tragedy infused with film-noir fatalism. Featuring superb performances by Michael Greyeyes and Chaske Spencer in the lead roles, the film, receiving its world premiere at Sundance, marks an auspicious feature debut for its writer/director.

The opening section, set in the 1980s, introduces us to two Anishinaabe youth: Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) and his best friend and cousin, Teddo (Julian Gopal), living on a Midwest reservation. The former is clearly emotionally troubled and prone to violence, traits that are manifested during a walk in the woods when he impulsively shoots and kills a classmate of whom he’s jealous. Teddo witnesses the murder, and despite his horror he helps his friend bury the body so it won’t be discovered.

The Bottom Line

The debut of an impressive cinematic talent.

Cut to the present day when the two have taken very different paths. The grown-up Makwa (Greyeyes, Woman Walks Ahead, HBO’s True Detective), who now calls himself Michael, is a successful executive on the fast track to a promotion at the large marketing firm where he works and is married to the beautiful Greta (Kate Bosworth), with whom he has an infant son. Teddo (Spencer, the Twilight series), on the other hand, is just being released from prison after serving a 10-year sentence, his face heavily covered by garish tattoos.

That Michael is self-conscious about his heritage becomes apparent when he nervously asks his co-worker/friend Jerry (Jesse Eisenberg, who also executive produced) if his braid is too long. He barely manages to disguise his unhappiness when his wife tells him she’s pregnant again. His continued capacity for violence becomes evident when he asks a stripper if he can choke her during a private session and nearly kills her in the process, leaving a generous tip afterward.

Meanwhile, Teddo attempts to reintegrate himself into society, reconnecting with his supportive sister Cammy (Lisa Cromarty, terrific) and attempting to form a loving bond with the five-year-old nephew he’s never met, even while insisting on sleeping outside in a tent instead of in the house. He gets a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant, the manager telling him that he won’t be able to interact with customers because of his forbidding facial tattoos. And he goes to visit the mother of the boy Makwa killed, breaking down in tears of guilt and anguish as he confesses his role in the crime.

He also shows up unannounced at Michael’s home and pulls a gun on his former friend. The ensuing events take an even darker turn, infusing the proceedings with a darkly pessimistic, ironic quality that will prove haunting long after the film is over.

Shooting in a muted color palette and minimalistic style with long stretches of silence, the filmmaker exerts a powerful control over his gloomy material. While there are occasional doses of thematic self-indulgence, such as an early scene in which a priest (Scott Haze) delivers a lesson to his young students about Cain and Abel that’s clearly meant as foreshadowing, they don’t detract from the overall dramatic effect.

Bosworth and Eisenberg’s roles are minimal, but the two leads deliver memorably arresting turns. Spencer is deeply moving as the emotionally tortured Teddo, while Greyeyes displays a taut physicality and simmering intensity that hold your attention every moment he’s onscreen.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production company: Logical Pictures, Pureplay Entertainment
Cast: Michael Greyeyes, Chaske Spencer, Jesse Eisenberg, Kate Bosworth, Lisa Cromarty, Hilario Garcia III, Phoenix Wilson, Julian Gopal, Scott Haze
Director/screenwriter: Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr.
Producers: Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., Thomas Mahoney, Eric Tavitian
Executive producers: Celine Dornier, Frederic Fiore, Raphael Margules, J.D. Lifshitz, Adam Margules, Katy Drake Bettner, Joel Michaely, Niraj Bhatia, Adriana Banta, Jake Carter, Jesse Eisenberg, Heather Rae, Brent Green, Lesli Masoner, Dan McClung
Director of photography: Elie Born
Production designer: Jonathan Guggenheim
Editors: Ed Yonaitis, Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.
Composer: Gavi Brivik
Casting: Eyde Belasco
Sales: 30West/Endeavor Content

90 min.