Watch him: he's like a monstrous dark image of hate, from his raptor's beak of a nose to the Huron war plumes bristling on his shaven naked head. Everything counts: that pulse throbbing in his temple precedes his devoutly-schemed-for homicides by seconds. His very acne scars have a vile eloquence.
He's subtle. See the fascinating night scene of his parlay with the French general Montcalm. These two brilliant insincere minds understand each other so well, and with so few words. Montcalm smoothly explains that the English prisoners are allowed by law to leave safely. LEAVE safely--he doesn't say, REACH THEIR DESTINATION safely. Magua knows he has been given permission to kill them down to the last man and woman.
Which is exactly what he almost does. As a scout, he leads the relieved and complacent party of English prisoners frolicking along to their doom as though to a picnic. Then suddenly he's the god pulling the strings, delivering the first blow in an ecstatic seizure of revenge as the English are ambushed by his warriors, and bloodily hacked apart with gore flooding their red coats.
Even in this scene of carnage, Magua's focus is unearthly: what he wants is the scalp and beating heart of the Englishman Munro, his great enemy. Driving straight through the chaos like a spear to its target, he finds Munro and cripples him--you will never see eyes more remote and murderous than Magua's in this scene--then, not content with simply killing the man, tells Munro with a terrifying icy triumph that he will leave behind him no issue on the earth: his children will be murdered. Thus Magua breaks Munro's heart before he cuts it out and holds it high.
Wes Studi underplays throughout, except for brief moments in the magnificent action scenes when his intensity explodes. He's capable of great nuance just by slight movements of his eyes. Even in the climactic fight with Uncas (Eric Schweig)--the noble and (it has to be said) staggeringly beautiful Mohican warrior who's attempting to rescue Munro's daughter Alice--Magua has a totemic focus. He leaps, parries, stabs, slashes, and throws Uncas down the cliff face--with the efficiency of a violent dance. Even when he cuts Uncas's throat, and the boy is dead, Magua's expression reveals a powerful distaste, as though he feels disgust for the carrion corpse beneath his hand. That look of Studi's seems like an odd choice--until we think about it and realize that it's exactly what Magua would have felt.
Studi's performance keeps hitting us on the back of the head with a shovel. We can't rest for a moment, because he never can while he lives. And as though everything he's done weren't enough, it turns out he had his reasons. His wife and children were murdered by whites. That is what set him on this frenzy.
In a final turn of the blade, Magua's most perfect revenge, we don't get to just hate him. We have to understand him.