THE INDIAN RUNNER
Starring: David Morse, Viggo Mortensen, Valeria Golino, Patricia Arquette, Charles Bronson, Dennis Hopper and Sandy Dennis
Written by: Sean Penn
Inspired by the song HIGHWAY PATROLMAN by Bruce Springsteen
Directed by: Sean Penn
Running Time: 2hr 7mins
“My name is Joe Roberts, I work for the state
Now ever since we was young kids, it’s been the same come down I get a call on the shortwave, Frankie’s in trouble downtown Well if it was any other man, I’d put him straight away But when it’s your brother sometimes you look the other way
Yeah, me and Frankie laughin’ and drinkin’, nothin’ feels better than blood on blood Takin’ turns dancin’ with Maria as the band played “Night of the Johnstown Flood” I catch him when he’s strayin’, like any brother would Man turns his back on his family, well, he just ain’t no good”
– Highway Patrolman by Bruce Springsteen
Inspired by the song HIGHWAY PATROLMAN from Bruce Springsteen’s NEBRASKA album and boasting impressive performances by Viggo Mortensen, David Morse, Charles Bronson and Sandy Dennis, Sean Penn’s directorial debut, 1991’s THE INDIAN RUNNER should have been more than capable of attracting a decent audience. Unfortunately, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, it only made a measly $191,125 during its full theatrical run. Of course, since the movie’s U.S. distributor, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, decided to place it in only four theaters on its opening weekend and never allowed it to play on more than a total of nine screens, people who wanted to see it may not have had a way to. We mustn’t forget that back in 1991, there was no internet streaming going on and people had to wait for sometimes up to a year before a film made it into the video rental houses where, with no studio support, it could go very easily forgotten.
THE INDIAN RUNNER was a movie that I discovered by accident. Standing in a theater lobby just wanting to watch something, anything, I decided to give this movie that I had never heard of a chance and went in. What I got was an amazing character study of two brothers who are polar opposites and whose paths would eventually take them in different directions. The movie thrives on powerful performances, amazing images and strong emotional moments. An excellent directorial debut by Sean Penn, who over the years had become one of cinema’s greatest actors before proceeding to use this experience to gain a thorough understanding of how people act and feel in the real world as well as how to portray them on the big screen.
The story is centered around the relationship of two brothers, Joe and Frank. They are two sides of the same coin. Joe is the responsible one, while Frank is a mess. Early in the film, viewers are told that Joe was once a farmer, but after losing his land, he was forced to take a job as a police officer in order to make ends meet. He now lives with his wife and small child and has settled into a routine life. When Frank comes home from the Vietnam War, he is unpredictable and sometimes self-destructive. Joe feels a responsibility to Frank and has a need to help him straighten out, even though, at times, this feels like a lost cause.
Penn’s writing and directing are first-rate as he reaches for a genuine reality that is present in everyday life. Taking a five-and-a-half-minute song and expanding it into a story that lasts more than two hours, he’s given audiences a film that feels genuinely honest in its emotions. There isn’t a single moment that feels false in any way. Penn is able to effectively dig deep into the inner emotions of each character and allow them to live their individual lives in a rich and moving way. The movie gives viewers an honest look at not only a small family but also the small town that surrounds them. It makes no apologies for the flaws of its central characters and everybody in the film, no matter how small their part, is fully developed. Whether it’s the one minute spent with a mother and father of a man whose killed in the films opening moments or a woman who talks to Joe as he washes his car in her only scene, these smaller characters all seem to have their own little stories to tell and this helps to make the world that the main characters inhabit feel fully realized. Some filmmakers may have left many of these scenes on the cutting room floor to keep everything moving along at a faster pace, but Penn understands how they contribute to the overall atmosphere that makes the film and the characters that we are watching so effective.
Being an actor, it’s no surprise that Penn would pay particular attention to the performances, allowing them to radiate a certain amount of truth. The cast that has been assembled is close to perfect. Made up mostly of lesser-known actors/actresses (at least at the time), it’s no surprise that each of the main players would see their careers go on to do bigger things. Coming fresh from TV’s St. Elsewhere, David Morse brings life to Joe by playing him in an understated, subtle manner. He is a man whose life’s goals have been sidetracked but has led him to a place that he must learn to accept as the blessing it is. He is eager to help his brother but must realize that it may be better to let him go.
On the other hand, Viggo Mortensen plays Frank in one of his first major movie roles. Frank is an angry soul who can explode at any minute. The script doesn’t give Frank any easy answers for his behavior either. Being a Vietnam veteran isn’t an excuse for why Frank is the way he is, as it’s stated early in the story that he was a troublemaker even before heading off to the war. No matter how much Joe tries to get him on the right path, sometimes, in real life, things don’t go the way we may want. Frank falls in love and has the chance to start a real family when his girlfriend becomes pregnant. He takes on a job and tries to live a normal life, but responsibility scares him and whenever it rears its ugly head, it freaks Frank out, leading him back to his wild ways. His is a tragic story, and there is nothing that Joe can do that seems to help. Mortensen effectively balances Frank’s struggle between a sympathetic calm and the uneasy violence that is his true nature, giving a performance that hints at of how great an actor he will become in the future.
The supporting cast is very strong as well. Sandy Dennis is great in her less than 2 minutes of screen time as she plays the sympathetic and reassuring mother and Valeria Golino gives us a great partner to Joe as his wife, grounding his family life in a very real place. However, Patricia Arquette stands out as Frank’s girlfriend, Dorothy, a childlike soul who loves Frank despite all his flaws. Her love sometimes feels so strong that it helps us sympathize with Frank even though we know he is on the path to self-destruction and may also take a few others along with him.
Then there is Charles Bronson. He plays Joe and Frank’s father. This is a performance that comes as a major surprise, considering his last batch of films was made up of brainless revenge thrillers that thrived on senseless violence. It was almost like Bronson had given up on acting and was just going after the money. In THE INDIAN RUNNER, though, he gives a performance that, in this reviewer’s opinion, should have gotten him some awards consideration. It’s a quiet but powerful performance that shows a calm vulnerability viewers won’t expect from Bronson. It’s the kind of acting that I wish Bronson had given us more of throughout his career.
THE INDIAN RUNNER is a film to respect because of its honesty. It strives to offer us a true reflection of ourselves by introducing us to a world that doesn’t feel fabricated for a movie audience. It doesn’t give us false scenarios so that we feel better about ourselves as we leave the theater. Penn digs deep to understand the characters that Springsteen originally wanted to introduce us to, and these characters are true to life with real-world emotions that we can all relate to. The INDIAN RUNNER isn’t about the story as much as it is about the people who inhabit the tale being told, making it a much more emotional experience.
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