October 5, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.
Culture Representation: Taking place in a California and in an unnamed U.S. state, the dramatic film “Wild Indian” features a Native American and white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Two male cousins of Ojibwe Indian heritage have conflicts with each other over a murder they covered up when they were teenagers more than 30 years earlier.
Culture Audience: “Wild Indian” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching dramatic thrillers about sociopaths where the stories don’t offer easy answers.
“Wild Indian” isn’t going to win any awards for groundbreaking portrayals of Native Americans. However, it’s a suspenseful drama about how two cousins in their 40s have very different views of how to handle the murder cover-up that they participated in when they were teenagers. Taking into account that there are very few American-made feature films with Native Americans comprising at least half of the principal cast members (including the lead actor), “Wild Indian” is notable for having this representation on screen.
The movie won’t satisfy people who are looking for a more definitive ending to the story. However, “Wild Indian” is an astute observation of how race and class play roles in how people are treated by the criminal justice system. This observation might be too realistic for some people’s comfort.
Written and directed by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., “Wild Indian” tells the story of two Native American cousins from the Ojibwe tribe and how their lives took two very different paths after they decided to keep a dark secret: When they were teenagers, one of the cousins shot and killed another teenage boy in a cold-blooded manner, and he convinced his cousin to help him cover up the crime. The cousin who became an accomplice to murder has been wracked with guilt ever since. The cousin who pulled the trigger has no guilt and would do anything to keep this crime a secret.
If viewers have a problem with Native Americans being portrayed as criminals in this movie, it’s worth noting that “Wild Indian” writer/director Corbine is also from the Ojibwe tribe. “Wild Indian” is his feature-film directorial debut. Corbine’s “Wild Indian” depiction of Native American culture is less about negative stereotypes and more about socioeconomic effects on Native Americans. The movie confronts the very real issues of how Native Americans are treated by American society can depend largely on how well a Native American assimilates into places dominated by white people.
“Wild Indian” shows two parts of the lives of cousins Makwa Giizheg and Teddo: when they are in their early teens in 1985, and when they are in their late-40s in 2019. The actors portraying the two cousins are Phoenix Wilson as young Makwa, Julian Gopal as young Teddo, Michael Greyeyes as adult Makwa and Michael Chaske as adult Teddo. The movie is told from Makwa’s perspective.
As children, Makwa and Teddo (who are about 13 or 14 years old in 1985) live in the same unnamed city in an unnamed U.S. state. (“Wild Indian” was actually filmed in Oklahoma and California.) Makwa, who is an only child, goes to a Catholic school, where he is doing well academically, but he’s an introverted loner. His life at home is very troubled: His mechanic father Darren Giizheg (played by Elisha Pratt) is an alcoholic who is verbally and physically abusive to Makwa. Makwa’s mother Ivy (played by Happy Frejo), who also has a drinking problem, doesn’t do anything to stop the abuse.
Makwa and Teddo go to the same school, where Teddo has a secret crush on a fellow student named Alyse (played by Lauren Newsham), who is pretty and popular. Makwa is too shy to approach Alyse not just because he feels like a social outcast who comes from a troubled family, but also because of underlying, unspoken issues about race. Alyse is white, and so is James Wolf (played by Colton Knaus), the student who has started dating Alyse.
Not surprisingly, Makwa is jealous of James, but Makwa keeps those feelings to himself. At home, Makwa has to try to avoid getting beaten up by his father, who will fly into rages for no good reason. During one of these abuse incidents, Darren physically assaults Makwa and shouts at Makwa: “I don’t want you in the house!” And so, Makwa has to find another place to stay for the night.
The movie doesn’t really show Teddo’s home life when Teddo was a teenager. However, it’s implied that when things get rough in Makwa’s household, he can find refuge in Teddo’s household. Needless to say, Teddo is Makwa’s closest companion. Teddo is the one who teaches Makwa how to shoot a rifle.
Makwa gets injuries from the physical abuse, and some of those injuries (such as a black eye and bruises) are difficult to hide. At school, Makwa is called into the office of the school principal, a caring priest named Father Daniels (played by Scott Haze), who tactfully tries to find out if Makwa is being abused at home. Father Daniels asks Makwa how he got the bruises.
Makwa is sullen and abrupt when he replies, “I was running and I fell. Can I go now?” Father Daniels then asks Makwa about Makwa’s parents: “Do they drink often?” It’s a sore subject for Makwa, who cuts the conversation short. Makwa tells Father Daniels that he’s doing well academically, so there’s no reason for him to be in the principal’s office. It’s the first indication that Makwa has a side to him that’s willing to defy authority and deny there’s a problem to anyone who might want to help him.
In their free time, Makwa and Teddo like to go into the woods to shoot things, such as discarded items, for target practice. They use a rifle owned by Teddo’s father. And one day in the woods during target practice, when Teddo is a few dozen yards away, Makwa happens to see his rival James by himself. Makwa takes aim and coldly murders James.
Teddo hears the gunshot and goes over to see what Makwa as shooting at, and he’s shocked to se James’ dead body. Whle Teddo is panicking and says they should call an ambulance or the police, Makwa convinces Teddo not to tell anyone because he says that they will both get in trouble. Instead, Makwa convinces Teddo to help him bury James in the woods. It’s a secret that they will carry for the next 34 years.
Before the movie fast-forwards to 2019, there’s a very telling scene that shows that Makwa isn’t a misunderstood child who made a horrible mistake. After another vicious fight with his father, Makwa bites his father’s hand, and then runs outside to the woods, where Makwa finds the spot where James’ body iss buried, and he urinates on this makeshift grave. It’s at this point that viewers know what Makwa is a sociopath with no remorse for the murder he committed.
In 2019, Makwa is a successful business executive at an unnamed corporate job in California. The type of business he does isn’t fully described in the movie, but it’s a company where Makwa has to interact with important clients. Some of these clients like to play golf, so Makwa is shown playing golf as a way to be in a better position to network with clients or potential clients.
And there’s something else about Makwa’s reinvention as a successful executive who’s on the rise at his company: He’s changed his name from Makwa Giizheg to Michael Peterson. Michael is also married to an attractive blonde named Greta (played by Kate Bosworth), and they have a son named Michael Jr., who’s about 2 years old. Greta does not know about Michael’s past, including his former name.
Michael and Greta have an upper-middle-class lifestyle somewhere in the Los Angeles area. She works in human resources and isn’t very enthusiastic about her career choice. it’s why when Greta finds out that she’s pregnant, she tells Michael that she wants to take a leave of absence from her job. Michael doesn’t seem very happy that Greta is pregnant with their second child, since this second child was unplanned. Viewers will soon see that Makwa/Michael is not only a sociopath, but he’s also a control freak.
Whatever attempts that Makwa/Michael made to assimilate into his predominantly white environment, he still gets reminders that he’s a person of color. At his job, a white co-worker named Jerry (played by Jesse Eisenberg) seems to genuinely like Michael and is rooting for his success. But when Jerry talks about Michael being a top candidate to be promoted into an open position, he mentions Michael being Native American as something that will make the company look progressive. It’s a casually racist remark that implies that Michael’s race can be used as a trendy gimmick instead of Michael being qualified for the promotion, solely based on his skills and experience.
Meanwhile, as Makwa/Michael has made a life for himself as an “upstanding citizen” who’s living “The American Dream,” Teddo has spent 12 of the past 34 years years in and out of prison. He spent 10 years in prison for drug dealing. He’s also been incarcerated for drug possession and assault and battery.
In 2019, Teddo (who is a a bachelor with no children) has been released from prison and is trying to get his life back on track. He’s moved back into his family home, where he lives with his sister Cammy (played by Lisa Cromarty), who is the single mother of a 5-year-old son named Daniel (played by Hilario “Tres” Garcia III), who is very shy. Since Teddo’s parents aren’t mentioned at this point in the story, it’s implied that they are dead.
Teddo has a much bigger problem than difficulty finding a job because he’s an ex-felon. His conscience has been weighing heavily on him because of the secret that he and Makwa have been keeping. The two cousins have not seen or spoken to each other in years, but Teddo decides he’s going to track down Makwa and confront him about this dark secret. Teddo also reaches out to Lisa Wolf (played by Sheri Foster), the mother of James. (Jennifer Rader portrays Lisa in the scenes that take place in 1985.)
There are some other things that happen in the movie that should be surprises but unfortunately are revealed in the “Wild Indian” trailer. It’s enough to say that Makwa/Michael is forced to deal with this secret, and he goes to extreme lengths to try act innocent. During this period of time, viewers see that Makwa/Michael has been fighting a compulsion to commit violent crimes against people.
For example, Makwa/Michael has a disturbing encounter with a stripper that is eerily similar to what real-life serial killers have done to victims who’ve had violent experiences with serial killers. After this incident, Makwa/Michael is seen frantically praying in a church. It shows he has some feelings of guilt over his horrific crimes, but whatever guilt he feels is overshadowed by his need for self-preservation and control.
“Wild Indian” shows how Makwa/Michael uses his con man skills to lie and and manipulate his way out of a few situations. The movie never shows what happened in the years between the James Wolf’s murder in 1985 and Makwa/Michael’s life in 2019, but it’s easy to see that Makwa/Michael’s reinvention isn’t just about covering up the murder. He now lives a life of privilege, which he uses to hs advantage when it comes time for him to get a lawyer.
As the sociopathic Makwa/Michael, Greyeyes gives a chilling performance, even if it is a little robotic at times. Maybe it’s just Greyeyes’ way of portraying someone who has no empathy. All the other supporting characters in Makwa/Michael’s orbit (except for Teddo) are somewhat two-dimensional. Not enough time is spent with these supporting characters to get a sense of who they are as well-rounded people.
Teddo is a much more interesting character to watch because his adult life is more difficult and complicated than Makwa/Michael’s life. Even though Teddo has more morality than Makwa/Michael, Teddo’s prison record automatically puts him at a disadvantage in how people will judge Teddo and Teddo’s credibility. Spencer gives the role a very compassionate nuance in how he portrays Teddo’s troubled soul.
“Wild Indian” doesn’t have a typical story arc that movies tend to have about people who’ve covered up of a murder years ago, and their past comes back to haunt them. This movie is more of a character study than a predictable criminal justice story. People who have a more realistic view of the world will probably appreciate “Wild Indian” more than viewers who expect movies like this to gloss over life’s harsh realities and wrap up everything nicely in a tidy bow.
Vertical Entertainment released “Wild Indian” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 3, 2021.