When Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s first full-length feature film, “Wild Indian,” had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in February, it was hailed by critics as an auspicious debut for the talented 31-year-old filmmaker.
The riveting, emotionally raw movie, available on video on demand starting Friday, Sept. 3, is the culmination of a 12-year journey of personal discovery for Corbine that began in Berkeley.
He remembers being home in the East Bay when he started feeling overcome with homesickness. Corbine, a member of the Chippewa tribe, grew up on Minnesota’s Mille Lacs Indian Reservation and “was starting to feel that I had run away from home,” he wrote in his “Wild Indian” director’s statement. He attributed his gnawing guilt to having left the reservation abruptly, “packing my car and taking off in the night.” In a state of acute longing for those he’d left behind, he started to write “Wild Indian” in a burst of creative energy. In just a week he had a first draft.
“It was the quickest I had ever formulated a story from start to finish,” he said.
That urgency — the sense of working through one’s personal pain as if your life depends on it, while also trying to process and understand the deeper roots of tribal loss and intergenerational trauma — fuels “Wild Indian,” a bold, at times disturbing movie.
Told in distinct chapters, the film follows the divergent paths of two Native American friends, Makwa and Teddo, who covered up their roles in a young classmate’s murder. “Wild Indian” introduces the boys as preteens on their Wisconsin reservation in the 1980s, and then picks up their stories as adults burdened in different ways by the lingering shame over what they’ve done.
Makwa, now going by the name Michael Peterson (played by Michael Greyeyes, “True Detective”), has become a financial success in California. He has a gorgeous wife (Kate Bosworth), plays golf and works a plain-vanilla corporate job (Jesse Eisenberg plays his co-worker) — but he is raging and broken inside.
Teddo (Chaske Spencer) emerges from a prison sentence simmering with guilt. He confesses to the dead boy’s mom and is on a mission to track down Makwa.
The film unfolds as a tense thriller, leaving the audience unsure about Teddo’s intentions and whether the people close to Makwa will discover, and ever understand, the pain he has witnessed and taken part in.
Both lead actors give devastating performances, tackling material that explores the domino effects of abuse and internalized racism.
In a post-screening Q&A with the cast and director at Sundance, Spencer said Corbine’s powerful script reminded him of a Sam Shepard play, with its focus on men in need of larger purpose and connection yet restricted by their own wounds.
“Growing up on a reservation, I knew a lot of Teddos,” Spencer said.
At one point in the movie, Makwa, overcome with self-loathing, says, “We are the descendants of cowards. Everyone worthwhile died fighting.”
“For a long time, Hollywood portrayed us in grotesque ways,” said Greyeyes, who is currently starring in the Peacock TV sitcom “Rutherford Falls” with Ed Helms and will appear next year in a remake of Stephen King’s “Firestarter.” “In Lyle’s sure hands I felt safe to reclaim that kind of portrayal and recontextualize it on our own terms.”
He described Makwa as “the kind of role I’d been waiting for for a long time. Complex portraits of Native men in a contemporary setting like this are still very rare.
“As an Indigenous (Canadian) actor, I’m very careful about how a character might be read,” Greyeyes continued, noting that he signed onto the project because of the power he felt on the page.
He particularly thanked Corbine for “giving audiences the chance to see the complexity of our stories and of our men as we struggle with pain and brokenness.”
“Wild Indian” (not rated) will be available to stream through video on demand starting Friday, Sept. 3.
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Emotionally raw portrait of Native American sense of loss in ‘Wild Indian’