Producers: Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., Thomas Mahoney and Eric Tavitian Director: Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr. Screenplay: Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr. Cast: Michael Greyeyes, Chaske Spencer, Jesse Eisenberg, Kate Bosworth, Lisa Cromarty, Hilario Garcia III, Phoenix Wilson, Julian Gopal, Scott Haze, Sheri Foster Blake and Colton Knaus Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
The wildness announced in the title of Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr.’s debut film is of a suppressed, internalized kind; “Wild Indian” is almost unbearably restrained and somber, but the tension beneath the surface gnaws at you throughout.
It’s a tale of how the past proves inescapable, however hard one might try to flee from it. After a prologue in which an aged Native American, his face marked by smallpox, is shown wandering into the wilderness, the story takes up in the 1980s, as two young Ojibwe cousins are growing up together on a reservation in the bleak upper Midwest, their lives mired in poverty and neglect.
While Ted-O (Julian Gopal) appears to cope reasonably unfazed, Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) harbors violent thoughts beneath a grim exterior. Bullied at the Catholic school run by Father Daniels (Scott Haze), whose sermon on Cain and Abel is a rather heavy-handed prophecy about what’s to follow, and mistreated by his father at home, he’s also envious of another student, James Wolf (Colton Knaus), who’s developed a friendship with a cute white classmate.
While Makwa and Ted-O are out in the woods one day, carrying a rifle they’ve borrowed from a relative, Makwa spies James and impulsively shoots him. He then pressures Tedd-O into helping him bury the body, and their shared secret with it.
Shifting into the present, Makwa, now calling himself Michael Peterson (Michael Greyeyes), has become a successful executive at a California firm, married to beautiful Greta (Kate Bosworth), with whom he has an infant son. He’s ambivalent about his cultural heritage, asking his co-worker Jerry (Jesse Eisenberg) whether the braid in his hair is too long. And though determinedly stoic, he still harbors an inclination to violence, exhibited in his visit to a strip club.
Ted-O (Chaske Spencer) is another matter. His face heavily tattooed, he’s just been released from prison, having served a long stint on drug charges. Though he returns to the reservation to stay with his sister Cammy (Lisa Cromarty) and her infant son, he’s emotionally on edge, haunted by the long-ago murder, and confesses his part in the crime to James’ mother Lisa (Sheri Foster Blake). Then he sets out to find Makwa. Their confrontation reveals their very different characters as the reality of the past demands that each make choices about the future.
The Oklahoma-shot feature is not visually elegant: the production design by Jonathan Guggenheim is spare, even in the California sequences, and Elie Born’s cinematography strives for simplicity rather than tricks. Corbine’s direction and the editing shared by him and Ed Yonaitis prize solemnity over excitement, even when violence is occurring; nor does the mournful score by Gavi Brivik break that mood.
The performances also emphasize control. Wilson shows flashes of intensity as the younger Makwa, but as the older Michael, Greyeyes holds everything in even under pressure. The reverse is the case with Ted-O: here Gopal is restrained and Spencer more extrovert. All are occasionally stiff but offer penetrating turns overall. The rest of the cast is more functional—Eisenberg and Bosworth have relatively minor roles, but are more than adequate.
“Wild Indian” requires patience, even a degree of tolerance, of viewers, but its deliberate, grim approach pays cumulative dividends.