The main characters in "Wild Indian" are hurting, and their pain dates back centuries.
Part tragedy, part thriller, the first feature from Minnesota filmmaker Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. competed in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Its protagonists are, like Corbine, Native Americans. (A member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the writer/director grew up on the Mille Lacs and Bad River reservations.)
We meet them as boys in Wisconsin, when Makwa kills another child and asks Ted-O to help him cover up the crime. Their paths diverge until a reunion in the present, when Ted-O is released from prison and confronts Makwa about their shared legacy of violence.
Although it's an angry film and a personal one — Corbine dedicates "Wild Indian" to his grandfather Sam, who died while he was writing it — "Wild Indian" is marked by its restraint. Nothing is forced or obvious.
A prologue connects the men's story to the historic trauma of American Indians and Corbine peppers his screenplay with indications that Ted-O fights to remain in touch with his heritage while Makwa, now a successful businessman who goes by Michael, explicitly rejects it. ("Indians are a ... bunch of liars and narcissists. We're the descendants of cowards.")
That disconnect is the central conflict, explored in a crackling sequence in which Ted-O (Chaske Spencer) challenges his former friend (Michael Greyeyes) at his snazzy California home.
Spencer brings a moving, haunted quality to the confrontation, in which he hopes to convince Makwa/Michael to tell the truth about their long-ago crime but also, perhaps, about the hurt their ancestors have lugged around for centuries.
Corbine and editor Ed Yonaitis crank up the tension in the scene, a decisive moment that may remind Flannery O'Connor fans of the climaxes of her stories, when a character is given the opportunity to either face up to or deny an essential truth about themselves.
Is an understanding possible? Can the men, essentially, redeem each other? Or are they doomed by injustices that have defined their lives since before they were born?
It's such a confident, subtle scene that the rest of "Wild Indian" is a bit of a letdown. The first half alternates between the lives of the men, but Makwa dominates the rest of the film. That makes narrative sense but Ted-O is so empathetic that we miss him when the story shifts to Makwa.
Lots of first-time filmmakers overelaborate their themes to make sure we know exactly what Important Statement they're making, but Corbine is comfortable leaving us with mysteries, asking us to gauge how the events we see weigh on the characters.
There are no easy answers for Makwa and Ted-O or for the historical mistreatment of American Indians. So it feels right that Corbine closes with a shot of Makwa gazing at the Pacific Ocean with a look on his face that seems to ask, "What next?"
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: Not rated but contains strong language, violence and partial nudity.
Where: On-demand services.