Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Stars: Michael Greyeyes, Chaske Spencer, Jesse Eisenberg, Kate Bosworth, Phoenix Wilson
Writer/Director: Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.
One of the great joys of reviewing films for a living is that startling moment when you “discover” an artist who — as far as you’re concerned, at least — has been hiding in plain sight.
Exhibit A: Michael Greyeyes, an actor of uncommon talent who virtually burns a hole in the screen playing a tormented, murderous, excruciatingly repressed survivor of child abuse in the extraordinary drama, Wild Indian.
Did you know about Michael Greyeyes? I sure didn’t, even though a quick Internet search shows he’s been onscreen almost constantly since 1995. Scanning the long list, I remember him being very good as Sitting Bull in 2017’s Woman Walks Ahead, and I vaguely recall him as a Viet Nam war vet in the third season of HBO’s True Detective.
But did I think much about Michael Greyeyes? Nope. And now I can’t get the guy out of my head.
Greyeyes is the centerpiece of writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s searing film, the deeply unsettling story of M’kwa, a troubled Native American adolescent who gets away with committing a senseless murder — then grows up to be a successful Los Angeles executive who goes by the name Michael and keeps his dark secret smothered beneath a facade of cool detachment.
That is, until the guilt-ridden childhood pal who witnessed the murder (Twilight Saga’s Chaske Spencer) comes calling, threatening to shatter the life of lies Michael has spent more than 30 years assembling.
Greyeyes and Spencer don’t actually arrive in Wild Indian until a half-hour or so into it. The opening scenes, set in Wisconsin, portray M’kwa’s tortured adolescence. He endures one hellish round after another with his father; tries to explain his bloated, bruised face to his teachers; and suffers relentless bullying from racist students.
M’kwa’s one friend is another outcast kid named Ted-O. Together they roam the local woods, shooting bottles with a rifle sneaked from the closet of Ted-O’s father. One day among the trees, following a particularly awful encounter with his father, M’kwa spots a youngster who happens to be the boyfriend of a girl he’s is sweet on. Coolly, deliberately, without even thinking, M’kwa gets a bead on the boy and shoots him dead.
There are a number of startlingly violent moments in Wild Indian, but none quite like this one. In a film heavy with standout performances, young Phoenix Wilson carves his own place as the young M’Kwa, a smart, dark soul shaped to sociopathy by a horrendous home life. Physically imposing for his age, Wilson nevertheless speaks in a painfully soft, Michael Jackson-like voice, as if an invisible hand is slowly strangling M’Kwa’s life force.
Writer/director Corbine, however, is not interested in offering a devil-made-him-do-it screed. M’kwa/Michael is far too complex a character to be simply explained away, and it falls to Greyeyes to provide a window to the character’s splintered psyche. We first meet the adult Michael in his glass-enclosed office; a transparent habitat for an opaque man, verbally sparring with a coworker (Jesse Eisenberg) as he mulls cutting off the ponytail that, as he observes, is part of his “brand” as a Native American employee.
“It does check off the last box,” his friend notes.
At his exquisitely styled home, Michael is greeted by his blonde, impeccably dressed wife (Kate Bosworth). She is clearly disheartened by his reluctance to interact with their young son — and more so by his cool reaction to the news that she is again pregnant. Clearly, Michael has never shared with her the terrible truth about his relationship with his father.
A supporting player for most of his career, Greyeyes thrives as the film flips the table, consigning the cast’s biggest names to little more than cameo roles. Still, Eisenberg and Bosworth are essential here: As privileged, rich, white people, their characters both sense something is wrong with Michael — but neither one even thinks to ask the right questions, much the same way American society gazes disapprovingly on poverty and drug use among Native Americans without ever seriously considering how it all came to be.
Indeed, while he’s willing to trade on his racial heritage for professional purposes, even Michael feels no emotional connection to it.
“It’s not my fault Indians are a bunch of liars and narcissists,” he fairly spits at one point. “We’re the descendants of cowards. Everyone worthwhile died fighting.”
But even as Michael rails against his ancestors, Greyeyes — neck veins nearly popping, eyes wild with disdain — offers a glimpse of the man’s emotional coil ratcheting ever tighter. As much as he hates his forebears, Michael detests himself even more.
And so Michael swirls ever deeper into his personal black hole, and Greyeyes mercilessly drags us along for every revolution. A member of the Lake Superior Chippewa tribe making his first feature film, writer/director Corbine is probing dark corners of the Native American experience. He refuses to grant Michael absolution for his actions — as does Michael himself. Indeed, just when we’re about to write him off as just another psychotic movie serial killer, Michael finds himself recoiling in horror from what he has done, going so far as to rush to church and recite a tearful, desperate Rosary. Through a unique brand of acting alchemy, Greyeyes entices us to both sympathize with Michael and be repulsed by him.
From the first frame, it’s clear there’s no happy ending in store from Wild Indian. Yet there is undeniable joy in discovering a master of the screen acting art, buoyed by an insightful script and splendid cast, fully formed yet somehow just arrived.
Featured image: Michael Greyeyes in Wild Indian (Vertical Entertainment)
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