The Indian Runner (1991)

Starring Viggo Mortensen, David Morse, Patricia Arquette, Valeria Golino, Charles Bronson, Dennis Hopper

Directed by Sean Penn

Expectations: High. I’ve really liked the other films of Penn’s that I’ve seen. How can you not be excited by that cast list too?


I don’t know the exact story of how Sean Penn came to be a director as well as a fantastic actor, but what it boils down to is this: the guy can make a movie. The Indian Runner is his first excursion into work behind the camera, and despite some minor flaws, it is a powerful and emotional film. Sean Penn heard the Bruce Springsteen song, Highway Patrolman (off the excellent acoustic album Nebraska), and was so moved by its story, that he wanted to write an entire film based upon it. The Indian Runner inexplicably does what it sets out to do and successfully translates the song into a film, expanding the narrative yet still remaining true to Springsteen’s two central characters, a pair of very different brothers.

David Morse works as a highway patrolman. Viggo Mortenson is a Vietnam Vet with an anger problem that just can’t seem to get his shit together. They were incredibly close when they were kids, but since getting older they haven’t been able to connect in the same way. It distresses the contemplative Morse, but Mortenson doesn’t seem to mind too much. Mortenson is a free spirit and can’t bear to be tied down. The two brothers are perfect opposites and the interplay between them makes for a very interesting drama. It is a very realistic representation of siblings and the struggles they go through together.

Penn’s camera tells a patient, thought-provoking tale with stark images and his script completes the one-two punch with its true-to-life dialogue. The acting all around is excellent, and is especially good from Mortenson. His portrayal of Frank is probably the best performance I’ve seen from him. He completely inhabits the wild nature of the character and fully commits himself body and soul. Morse is the perfect flip side of the coin, playing the metered, soft-spoken patrolman. He always seems to play this type of character, but he always impresses.

The only flaw of this film is its slow-moving pace. It’s very calm and a bit plodding, but it always tells an interesting story, sometimes it just takes too long to get where its going. I think with just a bit of tightening this could have blown people away, but instead it seems to have faded into oblivion. It’s a shame as the emotional weight and the interplay between the two brothers is heartbreaking and full-bodied. As much as I thought it was slow, I was powerless to stop the flooding of emotion and tears at the film’s climax, as multiple threads are brought together seamlessly and hit you like a sucker punch to the gut. This definitely isn’t a light movie, nor is it upbeat. It is a depressing, real look at a family that is both simple and complex, like the two brothers. This type of duality is present throughout the film, punctuating Penn’s story with insight and intelligence.

There are many great scenes throughout that I’d love to write about and dissect at greater length, but I feel that not enough people have seen the film, and I’d hate to be a spoiler and ruin anyone’s viewing. I’ll leave it at this. The Indian Runner is filled with great performances, thoughtful camerawork and realistic characters. If you’ve ever been seriously frustrated with your family and you’re in the mood for some contemplation, try this out. It just might fit.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0d6N-zUMqKE

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