'Wild Indian' Review: A Powerful, Unforgettable Drama That Simmers With Raw Emotion [Sundance 2021]

"It's not my fault Indians are a bunch of f***ing liars and narcissists," Michael says through gritted teeth, his voice shaking with rage. "We're the descendants of cowards. Everyone worthwhile died fighting." This rage is directed outward at someone else, but we can feel the self-loathing lurking beneath it all. The contempt Michael feels is for himself.

Michael wasn't always Michael. When he was a child in the 1980s, he was Makwa, living on a reservation in Wisconsin, where he was inflicted with daily physical abuse by his father and neglect by his mother. He was a boy prone to showing up to school with one of his eyes bruised shut, telling anyone who asked that he fell or bumped into something. And then one day, his entire life changed. Now, 35 years later, Makwa is Michael Peterson, a successful guy living in California with his wife and new child. He's chosen to forget his past. But his past hasn't forgotten him.

Written and directed by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.Wild Indian is a singular achievement; a film so raw and centered that it dares you to look away from scenes that simmer and burn. It's too early in 2021 to jump the gun and start calling out "best of the year" material, but Wild Indian certainly deserves to enter the conversation. It's a film you won't soon forget.

In the 1980s, we meet young Makwa (Phoenix Wilson), an Anishinaabe boy living in a fog of abuse and self-doubt in Wisconsin. His only friend is his cousin, Teddo (Julian Gopal), and while Makwa is soft-spoken and shy, Teddo seems outgoing and confident. We don't get to see what Teddo's home life is like, but when Makwa returns to his home he's greeted with nothing but scorn. When his father isn't kicking him out of the house he's physically abusing him, all while the boy's mother looks on, seemingly unperturbed. The hurt and rage burn inside this boy, and it's only a matter of time before it explodes. And when it does, it has deadly consequences. Those consequences extend to Teddo, who gets guilted into helping Makwa cover up a horrible deed.

Thirty-five years later, the boys have become very different men. Makwa is now Michael (Michael Greyeyes), a man who excels at his job and comes home to a wife (Kate Bosworth) and son. He's no longer the shy, nervous kid we met at the start of the movie. He's assertive, and dominant – and cruel. His only friend appears to be a coworker (Jesse Eisenberg) who occasionally appears frightened to even be around him. He treats his wife with coldness, and he seems completely removed from his son, as if he doesn't even want to look at the child or acknowledge his existence. At night, while his wife sleeps, Michael sneaks out to strip clubs where he pays girls to let him choke them. He seeks power and dominance over everything and everyone, as if doing so will officially remove any vestige of his younger, timid self. And he certainly doesn't seem interested in his Native American heritage.

Meanwhile, the adult Teddo (Chaskke Spencer) is just coming out of prison. Covered with tattoos and moving as if he's carrying a physical weight on his shoulders, he re-enters the outside world uncertain of his future. He ends up living with his sister and his nephew, and it seems like he might be able to carve out a good life for himself; a happy life, or at least a semblance of one. But the past won't go away, and Teddo is haunted by what he and Makwa did all those years ago. He can't let it go, and it sets him on a damned and potentially doomed course to reunite with Makwa

These are quiet moments that seem loud. The tension is often unbearable, and the performers are the key to tying it all together. Spencer is tragic and likable as the grown-up Teddo, but this film belongs to Greyeyes, who turns in a performance that's simultaneously scary and sympathetic. By all accounts, Michael is not a good man, but we can't help but empathize with him when we remember his terrible childhood. It doesn't excuse his actions, but it helps explain them.

Greyeyes perfectly balances these warring factions; the cruelty of the adult man and the gentle nature of the child buried within. A heartwrenching moment arrives when Michael says of his son, his voice quivering, "I want him to be normal. And good." He might as well be saying, "I don't want him to be me." Wild Indian is not about redemption. It's not about atoning for the sins of the past. There can be no peace for Michael, once known as Makwa. There can only be some sort of understanding. Some sort of memory, however fleeting, of the past. Of a time when he could've possibly thought of himself as normal, and good.

/Film rating: 8.5 out of 10