The Indian Runner is Sean Penn’s 1991 directorial feature film. Inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s heartbreaking song “Highway Patrolman” from his masterpiece Nebraska, The Indian Runner tells the story of two brothers (played by Viggo Mortensen and David Morse) on either side of the law. Joe (Hearse) is a honest cop who has a brother named Frank (Mortensen) who ain’t no good. Frank returns from Vietnam and tries to settle down in town, but he has a wild side to him, and despite Joe’s efforts to reconcile him with his estranged parents, he spirals out of control with tragic consequences.
Penn, whose other directed films I hold in very high esteem (I really liked The Pledge and Into the Wild is my absolute favourite film) has an immaculate eye for detail and style, and he does a fine job of transmitting the bleak landscapes and hoarse, saddened vocals of Nebraska to film. The acting is also very impressive, although Patricia Arquette was pretty annoying in this film. The late Dennis Hopper has a memorable role as a seedy bartender, and Charles Bronson (!!) plays the brothers’ father.
Nebraska has always been my favourite Springsteen record, and after seeing Into the Wild I was really moved by Penn’s passion and sincerity for the subject material. I went into The Indian Runner not knowing what to expect, but I was genuinely pleased with what I saw and felt. You can tell that Sean Penn was deeply affected by Christopher McCandless’ story (chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s excellent book Into the Wild) for Into the Wild, and I think the same applies for the relationship between “Highway Patrolman” and The Indian Runner. You can feel the strain of the relationship between the brothers in the film, and there’s one particularly heartwrenching scene towards the end that changes their lives forever, and that moment touches your heart forever with a realness that transcends any fictional depictions. Frank wants to settle down, but there’s an untamed wildness in his eyes, a lingering danger and agony which yields unpredictable, violent results. Joe wants to reach and help him, but there is nothing to do as change and frustration consume his brother.
As is usually the case with Penn at the helm, I was really intrigued by the sentimentality of the film. His portrayal of the characters hits so close to home that you feel really connected with each character, and each drastic consequence hits you in turn. The Indian Runner is ultimately a very depressing film, offering no true comfort or consolation, but that works to its advantage and power as an experience. Its rawness and loneliness empower it, and it is a masterful directorial debut.