Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s first feature, Wild Indian, opens with a brief historical sequence, tracking the final days, maybe moments, in the life of an Ojibwe man, stricken with smallpox. He’s weak and disoriented. He’s a little sick, we’re told, wandering West, attempting to escape his imminent death from the infection he’s received from contact with white colonists, an influence signified by the disfiguring smallpox rash covering the man’s body. “We are the last,” he whispers to a woman he refers to as Mother. Or maybe he’s speaking to some larger entity, the land around him.

Of course, his end is not the end. Wild Indian is a film about legacies, about the persistent presence of our founding trauma of violent dispossession and how it has shaped subsequent generations. The film’s initial apocalyptic moment leads us into the central narrative of two Native cousins, Makwa and Ted-O, also Ojibwe, vulnerable teens living on a reservation in Wisconsin. For Makwa, things are particularly rough. His father, a violent alcoholic, seems always to be inventing a reason to beat the boy, while his mother, blandly acknowledging Makwa’s fear, simply looks on. The little solace Ted-O can offer is taking his cousin out for walks in the woods after school, coaching him on how to shoot straight with his father’s rifle. After one particularly rough encounter, Makwa admits to Ted-O that he can’t take it anymore and urges his cousin to run off with him, to the city, where they can make their way, find something like success, like other people. White people is what he means, Ted-O seems to understand, and he responds with some confidence: “I don’t think it works that way.” The world as it is, as it’s been made for them, won’t allow that. But, among other things, the world around them is made of violence, and as desperation and resentment mount, it’s just a matter of time before empty bottles no longer suffice as the rifle’s only target. A not-quite-random killing seems to fulfill the boys’ destiny and maybe also to create a permanent rift between them, until Makwa makes a desperate and self-serving case for an alternative.

A stark divergence in the boys’ fortunes is revealed as the story leaps forward several decades. While Ted-O has remained in Wisconsin, mired in the desperate struggles of the reservation, we find Makwa, now known as Michael, out west, in California, apparently having found a way to penetrate the distant world of wealth, power, and status he’d once dreamed of. Like his ancestor, however, he’s not able to escape his infection. He may leverage the myths of his identity to his advantage within a system breathlessly excusing itself for—and never fully owning—the sins of colonization, but Michael’s barely concealed fury nevertheless exposes his deepest fears.

Michael Greyeyes plays the adult Makwa with a terrifying intensity, his cold menace never fully eclipsing the bewildered vulnerability of his younger self (played by Phoenix Wilson). Chaske Spencer is equally effective as the devastatingly wounded adult Ted-O, making the most of one particularly fine scene of revelation. Some weaker performances by minor characters and a few missteps in the script shave off a bit of the power of the film’s final third, but the emotional algebra of its larger narrative is never unclear. Wild Indian is a taut and essential testimony, not to be missed.

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