by Hope Madden
As angry a movie as you’re likely to see, Wild Indian pushes you to hope compassion and tenderness come to the most unlikable man onscreen.
When Makwa (an exceptional Michael Greyeyes) was a boy on the reservation, he and his best friend Ted-O (played in adulthood by Chaske Spencer) participated in something terrible. Ted-O never really got over it.
Neither did Makwa, but now living in a high rise in Seattle and going by Michel Peterson, you might mistakenly believe he’s moved on. This man is possibly the most complicated character I’ve seen onscreen this year, and Greyeyes’s blistering performance delivers honesty that’s tough to look away from.
Makwa/Michael is equal parts sociopath and lost soul. He is the result of his own upbringing, but also of suffering that goes back generations and reverberates outward to the sea outside his gorgeous upscale apartment and beyond.
Writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. refuses to lean on stereotypes that would make the performance more comfortable viewing. Makwa is neither victim nor noble wiseman. Not entirely a villain, he’s nonetheless ill-suited as antihero or, god forbid, hero. He’s a survivor bound up in his own guilt and shame, taking advantage of whatever he can and hating himself and everyone around him because of it.
Balancing that and breaking your heart as he does, Spencer’s Ted-O is a result of the same history of trauma, oppression, poverty. But the tenderness Spencer conveys in every scene, the humility and pain, give this film its humanity.
Corbine Jr. contrasts Ted-O’s touching relationship with his sister and nephew against Michael Spencer’s robotic, even frightening reactions to the women in his world. The two men’s relationships in the workplace differ similarly.
As the action builds toward an inevitable and bewildering climax, Ted-O is more sympathetic with every step he takes toward violence while Michael’s icy psychotic side emerges the more he tries to keep violence at bay.
It’s a desolate world Corbine Jr. creates, but no less remarkable for its bleakness. A character study unlike anything else on screen this year, Wild Indian gives longtime character actors Greyeyes and Spencer the opportunity to command the screen with leading roles and they more than rise to the occasion.
In his feature debut as a filmmaker, Corbine Jr. has also announced his own presence with authority.