An outstanding turn by Michael Greyeyes.
An outstanding turn by Michael Greyeyes as Makwa. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

A tragedy that takes its time dragging you through the coals of moral suffering, Wild Indian is a revelatory feature debut from writer-director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. that is as painful as it is darkly poetic.

Taking place over more than a thirty-five-year span, it follows Anishinaabe boys Makwa and Ted-O as they grow into adulthood after covering up a brutal incident from their youth. Though they both hide the act, it's Makwa, who later goes by Michael, who was directly responsible for the incident. Makwa had faced abuse at home, bullying at school, and near-constant scrutiny from white society that all comes to a head with the sudden violent act. That this stems from harm doesn't excuse it, though it does offer a sliver of an explanation.

Instead of violence being an isolated act, Wild Indian presents it as a process of historical and generational trauma. It's a film about wounds and how past sins stay with us into the future.

This becomes clear when an adult Ted-O, played by an unrecognizable yet unmatched Chaske Spencer, leaves prison after serving time for a drug-related offense. He initially looks to find peace by creating a semblance of a new life, though it soon becomes clear that is a futile effort. Even as Ted-O and Makwa's lives go in different directions, they find themselves drawn back together.

An adult Makwa, in an outstanding turn by Michael Greyeyes, is now a wealthy businessman who spends his days working on his golf swing, being as disconnected from his past as he can. He lives a life mostly defined by how far it is from who he once was, but he remains a man teetering on the edge. In one horrifying moment, his hand hovers over his sleeping child as he contemplates harming them, his past in the forefront of his mind.

Greyeyes creates a nuanced and multilayered performance, unlike anything he has done before. It's riveting and painful to watch his face transform as his past returns. The collective talent here is remarkable, and it's unfortunate that this is only the first opportunity these actors have gotten to work with an Indigenous director.

There are no simple answers or solutions given in Wild Indian. Whether there's healing to be found is an open question as the story flows delicately through time, with an unflinching focus on the complexity of Makwa's life. Even if you think it's clear where the story is going, getting to see the broken pieces fall into place is no less stunning.

You can watch Wild Indian on-demand via Sundance starting Monday, February 1.