“Some time ago, there was an Ojibwe man, who got a little sick and wandered West,” the intertitle at the start of “Wild Indian” states. The camera finds a man stooped and slowly making his way through the woods and follows him for a spell. “Little” is an understatement: His face is covered with pox blisters. This more-than-cautionary note sets the tone for the First Nations writer-director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.’s symbolically rich and subtle thriller focused on two cousins who share a secret about a rending act of violence.
As boys on a Wisconsin reservation, the cousins, Makwa and Teddo, have lives that are different by degrees. While Makwa’s home is far more brutal, both boys live in poverty, with empty beer bottles crowding tabletops. Teddo’s folks seem absent. Makwa’s are viciously present. The arbitrary violence endured by Makwa doesn’t make sense until a priest at the boys’ school delivers a homily. He tells his young audience that it was the story of Cain and Abel, with its lessons in suffering and worthiness, that “introduced resentment into the world.”
After a defining incident in the woods, the cousins’ paths diverge. Teddo (a sympathetic Chaske Spencer) spends decades in and out of prison. “What happened to your face?” his sister (Lisa Cromarty) asks with touching sorrow when she sees the paw print tattoo across his cheek after he’s been released.
The first time we see the adult Makwa, he’s setting up a shot on a golf course. Played by Michael Greyeyes, he has a chiseled beauty. He has done well in California. He has a corporate gig (with Jesse Eisenberg giving a fidgety performance as his boss), a loving wife (Kate Bosworth), a dark-haired toddler and an apartment with gallery-size walls, the better to display Native-themed artwork. He now goes by Michael. The transit from cherubic-faced Makwa to an emptied soul to a corporate striver who leverages his Indigenous identity appears complete — although a disturbing encounter at a strip club underscores that Michael is still writing his history of violence.
As for Teddo, much took place while he was incarcerated: His mother died; his nephew was born; life and loss went on. It’s no surprise he’s coiled and angry. Still, he nearly lets his ache for vengeance recede. Nearly. Teddo asks after Makwa and tracks him down. It takes a nimble and deft compassion to capture the various wounds of individual, familial and generational trauma. What Corbine does with the cousins’ inevitable reuniting teases his film’s doleful prologue and the priest’s Sunday sermon. The ensuing violence and its aftermath are chilling, woeful and utterly consistent with the tragedy that began long before a fateful afternoon in the woods.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.