Wild Indian opens in the 80s, with two teenage boys living on a Ojibwe reservation in Wisconsin. Both of them come from broken homes. Both of the are bullied in school. Makwa (played, as teenager, by Phoenix Wilson) is quiet but angry and spends most of his time trying to avoid the company of his alcoholic parents. His cousin, Teddo (played, as a teenager, by Julian Goppal), is slightly more responsible and level-headed. One day, after Makwa kills one of his classmates, he begs Teddo to help him hide the body. Teddo is reluctant but eventually, he agrees.
We then jump forward several years. Now played by Michael Greyeyes, the adult Macwa lives in California and he uses the name Michael Peterson. He’s a businessman, a partner in a firm with Jerry (played by the film’s executive producer, Jesse Eisenberg). Michael is married to a white woman (Kate Bosworth) and lives in an upscale apartment. He and his wife have one child and another is on the way. Though Michael doesn’t deny his Native heritage, he now uses it for a gimmick. He describes it as being his “brand.” He never speaks of his past in Wisconsin. His wife doesn’t even know his original name. Michael would seem to have everything that he’s ever wanted but it’s obvious that he’s still struggling with his inner demons. He hires a stripper so that he can strangle her. The rare time he does talk about other Native Americans, it’s to dismiss them as being dishonest and narcissistic, descriptions that many would use to describe Michael himself.
Meanwhile, Teddo (now played by Chaske Spencer) has spent the last several years in prison. Wracked with guilt after helping Makwa cover up the murder of their classmate, Teddo became a drug dealer. When he gets out of prison, his face is heavily tattooed, as if he’s trying to announce his crimes and sins to the world. When he visits the mother of the boy that Makwa murdered, Teddo starts to cry uncontrollably. Eventually, Teddo leaves Wisconsin, heading to California so that he can confront Makwa face-to-face.
Wild Indian is an atmospheric and, at times, rather disturbing thriller. It’s not a surprise that Teddo wants and needs some sort of resolution with Makwa but, from that premise, the film’s story goes off in some unexpected directions and, in the end, neither Makwa nor Teddo turn out to be quite who the viewer was expecting them to be. Teddo, the violent drug dealer, turns out to have a strong sense of moral obligation while Makwa, for all of his success, is so deeply in denial about his past and his sins that he can’t even be honest with himself about who he is, much less anyone else. It all leads to a rather jarring ending, one that may seem abrupt but actually works perfectly. In the end, the sins of the past cannot be escaped and they cannot be changed. All one can do is live under the clouds of the past.
Wild Indian is triumphant directorial debut for Lyle Corbine, Jr., an uncompromising character study of two men who can never escape the past no matter how much they may want to. Both Michael Greyeyes and Chaske Spencer give wonderful performances as Makwa and Teddo. This is definitely a film to track down and watch.