We meet Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) in the ’80s; a young teenage native American kid with very young parents who, when his Dad isn’t hitting him, treat him as a nuisance taking up their space. One day, out hunting with his cousin Teddo, Makwa shoots and kills another kid from his school, for no apparent reason, and makes Teddo help him bury the body. Picking up in 2019 we find Makwa (Michael Greyeyes) living as Michael Peterson, making a very comfortable living in a corporate job, married to a white woman (Kate Bosworth) with one kid and a second on the way. Teddo (Chaske Spencer) is getting out of jail, and when he goes to see Makwa, the past begins to come back around.
Wild Indian is a film almost entirely about what is going on under the surface. That’s true in a societal sense, as the film brushes up against issues of alcoholism and domestic abuse and, later in the story, against the way those issues are used as a cover for the racism with which white cops brush crimes on the reservation off. However, that larger context is itself often not the focus of the film, which is much more about the surface that Makwa/Michael presents to the world, and whether there is anything under it at all.
Michael Greyeyes’ Makwa is an unsettling creation; calm and emotionless, and apparently disconnected from everything around him. When he gets home from work his wife says “say hello to your son”, and still he barely acknowledges the 18 month old boy. Everything feels either coldly performative, or just off, notably another moment with his son when, stroking his hair, he says “He’s so soft, are all babies like that?” It’s the query more of a dispassionate scientist than of a caring father. Greyeyes is brilliant at putting across the emptiness behind Makwa, the problem is that for most of the running time, that emptiness is also felt at the heart of the film.
This is a very quiet thriller. Only an encounter with a stripper and a scene in a hospital late at the film open up more than a chink of Makwa’s darkest impulses, and aside from those moments there’s not much tension or sense of dread here. Makwa is so controlled that the film never quite puts us on edge. There is a nicely contrasting warmth for a few scenes of Teddo’s story, especially in his interactions with his young nephew, but again there’s no real suspense in how that story will end up.
Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr sets up a lot of interesting questions, about how society can allow a psychopath to function in its midst, about the inherent problems of low income communities and how they are served by authorities, but like Makwa’s mask, for me there’s not much behind them in the end. That’s equally true of a prelude and coda that flash far back into history and, for me, add nothing to either the story or the metaphor. The visual composure of the film and the control he clearly has of tone and what his actors are contributing points to good things from Corbine but, for its many qualities, I found there was a gaping void at the centre of Wild Indian.