‘Wild Indian’ is much more than just an Indigenous film

Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s new picture pushes Indigenous cinema into the realm of the thriller genre, but does it go far enough?

 

Michael Greyeyes as Makwa in 'Wild Indian.'
Courtesy of Wild Indian

The entertainment industry’s latest reckoning with inequality has made it slightly more willing to acknowledge the talents of Indigenous filmmakers and writers. Indigenous people have always made films for Indigenous audiences, but getting their work into the mainstream comes with the expectation they will translate their experiences for white audiences.

In Wild Indian, Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. (Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians) largely sidesteps this problem with a straightforward, impressive genre film. His main problem lies in his tendency to overexplain his thriller rather than let it speak for itself. What’s left is a film that, despite a few stumbles, still leaves you feeling riveted — as well as hopeful for what comes next from this burgeoning filmmaker.

Merely the fact that the Sundance Film Festival listed Wild Indian as a thriller represents a big step forward in Indigenous film. Here we have a film that fits itself purely into a genre convention. I just wish Corbine had enough confidence to let the genre speak for itself.  

This is Corbine’s first feature film. The 31-year-old, who co-edited the film, has a very bright future in directing and editing. His casting choices are superb. His instincts are good. 

The 31-year-old, who co-edited the film, has a very bright future in directing and editing. His casting choices are superb. His instincts are good. 

The film’s protagonist, Makwa, has a hard life as a young Native kid on the rez in the ’80s, not much different from that of a lot of his Native contemporaries. But Makwa has the added bonus of having frequent black eyes. The film addresses this in a clear-eyed and direct way. Makwa has a terrible dad, who likes to drink and manhandle his son, and an indifferent mother who ignores the abuse.

Eventually, Makwa is pushed into a desperate act that unwittingly ensnares his friend Ted-O and haunts the two young men in lifechanging ways. Ted-O is played by the incredible Chaske Spencer (Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes), and you’re immediately drawn in when he’s introduced as an adult in the second act. Michael Greyeyes (Plains Cree) is fine as Makwa, but Spencer simmers as Ted-O. Spencer has starred in a wide range of roles, from the Twilight young-adult film series to the lead in the largely overlooked experimental Western, Winter in the Blood. Spencer is arguably his generation’s Indigenous James Dean, and we absolutely need to see more of him on screen. He has tons of charisma, and the camera loves him. It’s a crime that he hasn’t had more roles.

There are two big-name actors in this film: Kate Bosworth convincingly plays Makwa’s white ex-stripper trophy wife, while Jesse Eisenberg plays the most ancillary role I’ve seen an important and accomplished actor take in some time, appearing as the flunky assistant to Makwa, who works in a nondescript corporate office with a bad view. It’s a bold choice, and Corbine is nothing if not deliberate. He puts the emphasis on his Indigenous characters and trusts us as viewers to buy into it.

The film loses some momentum in the third act as Corbine commits the cardinal sin of filmmaking.

The film loses some momentum in the third act as Corbine commits the cardinal sin of filmmaking: Telling rather than showing. Makwa, talking to a bedside victim, overexplains why he does the problematic things he does, and all I could do was wish that Corbine simply trusted his own screenplay rather than relying on a clunky monologue. While it’s interesting to hear Makwa’s self-hatred from his own mouth, we can see for ourselves that his is a complicated life without having it spelled out.

The film begins, and nearly ends, with a curious story about an Ojibwa man who is ravaged by disease and near death. One could argue that it represents the long history of colonialism and post-colonial disease. I get that. But then I go back to the question of exactly why Indigenous filmmakers are making these films. Who are they made for? Are they made to teach and heal? If so, who are they supposed to teach? Corbine made a solid genre film, but he tries to stretch it to conform to the expectations of every audience. It chugs along, stops, starts, and almost gets us there. I anticipate that his next film will push aside the needless exposition and stay true to the crux of the story. The future of Indigenous film is bright, with artists like Corbine moving forward with films that emphasize story above all else.

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer and director (and an occasional actor) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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