Television

What a Tribal Casino Boss and a Cold-Blooded Killer Have in Common

It’s not just that they’re played by the same actor.

Michael Greyeyes in Wild Indian and Rutherford Falls
Michael Greyeyes in Wild Indian and Rutherford Falls. Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Sundance Institute and Peacock TV.

On the Peacock sitcom Rutherford Falls, Michael Greyeyes plays Terry Thomas, a charismatic and intimidating casino executive from the fictional Minishonka tribe—a comedic role that hopefully was as much fun to play as it was to watch. But even as I enjoyed watching Terry outwit his competitors—including Ed Helms’ Nathan Rutherford, a descendent of the town’s namesake colonizer—I couldn’t stop thinking about Greyeyes’ dramatic performance as Makwa in Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr’s Wild Indian, which premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is now available on demand.

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Makwa is one of the coldest humans I’ve ever seen on screen. His entire presence is callous and indifferent, rarely deviating from his stoic state to express any fragment of emotion. In fact, Wild Indian begins with a young Makwa shooting a fellow Native classmate in the forest one day after school, perhaps in a fit of jealousy  over the student’s blonde girlfriend As if this heartless act weren’t enough, Makwa walks away unpunished from the murder, knowing that his cousin Ted-O (Chaske Spencer) will do time for a crime he didn’t commit.

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When I interviewed Greyeyes earlier this year, I asked him if there was any difference in preparing the two dramatically different roles. “I’ll say that they’re actually similar,” he explained. “They’re both successful men. On the one hand, Terry’s success is based in love of family and his ambition. Whereas with Makwa, his success and his ambition is rooted in something else. He’s hiding his pain from himself and from everyone around him.”

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At the time, I didn’t think much more about the comparison. Both characters are brought to life by the same actor, are successful in their careers, and wear tailored suits with a long braid—so sure, they physically look the same. But thinking about what Greyeyes said made me look beyond these characters’ external  similarities to find their differences. The glaring distinction is what fuels each character’s drive for success.

While neither Rutherford Falls or Wild Indian gives us a full outline of either man’s life story, flashbacks show us that both are subjected to class inequality and generational trauma as boys, but it manifests differently in each of their homes. Young Terry’s quick wit and knack for business lead him to a set successful lemonade stand in the middle of town—and when the bakery that let Terry set up his operation outside the storefront attempts to increase the amount they charge him for the brownies he’s reselling, the young mastermind improvises by setting up across the street and baking his own goods. He doesn’t dwell on the unfairness of the situation; rather, he figures out an alternative. This is very different from the bitter Makwa, who shows up to his classes with visible bruises. As he sits on the school bus waiting to go home to his loveless house, he stares at a picture-perfect blonde family who appears happy—a feeling Makwa can’t even imagine.

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Terry uses his circumstances to push forward and prove that Native people are not victims. But Makwa’s house is full of rage and instability, an infertile environment for growth. Instead he begins to hate anything Indian, including his mother and her boyfriend. His inability to sympathize with the generational trauma these two adult figures attempt to drown with alcohol is understandable in a child. Still, the darkness his surroundings creates a sinister nature that drives him to murder.

While their approaches to life inform their overall attitudes, adult Terry and Makwa, who now goes by the more Anglo name of Michael, might seem almost identical to the outside observer. Both men have climbed out of their working-class origins and want for nothing, and neither do their children. Their homes are spacious and well-decorated, and both are respected in their professional careers: Terry as the head of the tribal casino and Michael in his tech-oriented position. But while Terry’s ambition is based on a goal of redistributing wealth and power to his community, Michael life is fueled by rage and a desire for retribution against the world that allowed him to be born an Indian.

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Since he was a child, Terry has utilized misconceptions of Native people to his own benefit. He tells customers at his lemonade stand “God bless America!” as they kindly smile at the small Indigenous kid with a cheerful spirit. When an NPR reporter questions him about the supposed conflict between unfettered capitalism and tribal values, Terry tries to reflect back his superficial pleasantry. But eventually the journalist breaks down Terry’s calculated persona and real passion is seen. “Everything I do and every move I make is to ensure the success of my nation,” he says. “You come from a society that values the self over the whole.”

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Michael’s mask is less admirable, resulting in a detached shell of a human being. Sentiment is never detected through his face or body language, even in tender moments with his wife or infant son. The only time this guard is let down is when Michael pays women at local strip clubs in order to take them somewhere private so that he can choke them. All his inner rage is channeled into this unhealthy action, allowing him to control his violent urges in day-to-day life.

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Both of these characters are fully dimensional, with a clear drive and motivation. While Terry and Michael might have much in common , what sets them apart is their ultimate goal. Terry’s every decision is made with the consideration of those around him. Not only does he think of the present tribal community, but the generations that will follow. Michael’s intent is self-serving, only thinking of what will help him further his own name while hiding all that hurt that exists inside of him. He has no guilt about his own cousin serving a prison sentence for the murder he committed, and he feels no remorse for his own family, who he holds at a distance.

“I love playing characters that are empowered,” Greyeyes said to me months ago. In these two projects he embodies two different sides of power that take form in very similar ways. The performer’s ability to grasp the motivated Terry who is in control of his emotions in a healthy manner, as well as Michael who has purposely forsaken his Native identity, including his name, in order to hide a sinister secret, is a testament to the breadth of Greyeyes’ talent, and the broadening range of movie and TV stories that allows him to express it.

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Is Michael empowered? Yes, but at a cost: He has completely assimilated to the colonized culture around him, using his indigeneity only when it serves his own personal gain. There is a chilling moment where Michael discusses cutting off his braid with his office co-worker Jerry (Jesse Eisenberg). He decides against it, not because of tradition, but because he feels like it’s become a personal trademark. His identity is merely something he exploits.

All humans have some darkness in them, and that’s true for Terry as well as for Michael. But Terry’s anger at the world, whatever temptations he may have to work only for his own gain, is balanced out by the community he sustains, and that sustains him. Michael has no such connections. His childhood trauma has severed him from the place he comes from, and the darkness is all that remains.

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