I'm a sergeant out of Perrineville, barracks number 8
I always done an honest job, as honest as I could
I got a brother named Franky, and Franky ain't no good”
- “Highway Patrolman” by Bruce Springsteen
The Indian Runner marked Sean Penn’s directorial debut in 1991 and was based on the Bruce Springsteen song “Highway Patrolman” from his 1982 album Nebraska. Like the song, the film is a character study that focuses on the turbulent relationship between two brothers – one a police officer, the other a troubled Vietnam War veteran. Penn proceeds to take Springsteen’s song and flesh it out to create an engrossing film that evokes some of the best American films from the 1970’s. It also gave substantial roles to then up-and-coming character actors David Morse and Viggo Mortensen while also giving juicy supporting parts to veterans like Charles Bronson and Dennis Hopper. While The Indian Runner was a critical darling, playing the film festival circuit, it failed to catch on with a mainstream audience due to its dark subject matter.
The film begins with a car chase through snow-swept countryside and the first thing that one notices is the shots of the desolate farmland – a close-up of barbed wire, a No Hunting sign written on a spare tire – that Penn inserts throughout the chase. With this sequence he not only establishes Joe Roberts (David Morse), a highway patrolman and one of the main characters, but the setting – America’s heartland. Joe’s estranged brother Frank (Viggo Mortensen) is due to return from Vietnam in a week but he arrives unexpectedly early in the middle of the night. Joe is determined to put Frank on the straight and narrow path and repair their fractured relationship. At first, things go smoothly as Frank attempts to emulate his brother by getting involved with a woman (Patricia Arquette) who ends up pregnant with his child but he can’t change who he is and Joe is forced to choose between his duty as a cop and his love for Frank.
As you would expect from an actor turned director, The Indian Runner is an excellent showcase for the actors. Penn gets solid performances out of every one with David Morse and Viggo Mortensen delivering career defining performances. Mortensen is something of a minor revelation here as he effortlessly disappears into the troubled Frank and one can see a simmering rage behind his eyes. He is the unpredictable bad boy who, if he hadn’t gone to Vietnam, probably would’ve gone to prison (which is what happens when he gets back). This is in sharp contrast to Morse’s Joe, an upstanding officer of the law who took on the profession after his farm went out of business. He’s now married and has a kid – all the hallmarks of a “good man” as his mother (Sandy Dennis) puts it, which is the polar opposite of Frank who is “a very restless boy” as his father (Charles Bronson) puts it. Morse and Mortensen are the kind of actors that would have thrived in the ‘70s and one could easily see them in films like Five Easy Pieces (1970) or Scarecrow (1973). Penn’s film is obviously attempting to evoke films from that era, like The Deer Hunter (1978), which weren’t afraid to present flawed characters and stories that were driven by them with attention to their behavior. It makes sense, then, that Penn dedicates his film to the memory of Hal Ashby and John Cassavetes – two maverick filmmakers who helped define the kind of challenging films Penn admires and emulates from that decade. Yet, he isn’t merely evoking that era of filmmaking to be hip. He incorporates it into his film and makes it his own.
It has been said by film critics like Roger Ebert that Frank and Joe reflect the duality that exists in Sean Penn. There is the respectable, socially-conscious family man that was married with kids, and the rebellious hellraiser that punches out paparazzi. Mortensen even adopts a drawl coupled with a sly grin as he smokes a cigarette in several scenes that, at times, evokes Penn. This may explain why Frank and Joe seem so authentic as Penn knows these people so well. It also helps that his casting is spot on. He rescued Charles Bronson from generic thriller hell and cast him in this film. It is great to see the veteran actor in a substantial role as he brings an impressive complexity to a bitter father figure proud of one son and disappointed in another. In his small amount of screen-time he manages to convey the conflicting qualities that both his sons possess.
When Sean Penn first heard Bruce Springsteen’s song “Highway Patrolman” in 1982 it gave “flashes of pictures” in his head and began applying characters and a story to these images. He was inspired to write a screenplay in a month while filming We’re No Angels (1989). He had actually been writing scripts since 1980 and knew exactly what he wanted the film to look like but didn’t know if he could get the financing or the rights to the song. The first title Penn came up with for his script was A Slow Coming Dark, then Greetings from the Wasteland, and finally The Indian Runner. This last one came from a book about Native American Indian running, which he had read.
He called Springsteen and got his blessing. He then approached producer Don Phillips (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) with several of his scripts, one of them being The Indian Runner. That was the one Phillips picked. Penn told him that it had been written by a prison inmate named J. Claude McBee and did this because he wanted an honest opinion, not one based on pre-conceived ideas people had about him. Penn wanted the script to speak for itself. Phillips gave the script to two producers who liked it but felt that the ending wasn’t commercial enough to get the film funded. Penn shelved his project until Phillips’ friend and fellow producer Thom Mount had set up a deal with Japanese funding to bankroll a slate of films. Mount was a fan of Penn’s work and agreed to back his film.
For the role of Joe, Penn wanted David Morse who he had seen in a film called Inside Moves (1980). He was impressed by the actor’s “kind of soulful dignity.” The two men met and Penn decided to cast him. However, Phillips didn’t want to cast Morse because he couldn’t see the actor and Mortensen as brothers. Penn paid for a screen test for Morse and wrote a scene specifically for the actor to perform that was not in the film. Morse nailed it and Phillips was convinced.
For the role of Frank and Joe’s father, Penn had originally cast Gene Hackman and then Jon Voight was considered. Penn finally cast Charles Bronson based on what he knew about the difficult times in the actor’s private life, chief among them standing by his wife Jill Ireland’s battle with cancer. Penn wanted Sandy Dennis to play the mother but he learned that she was dying of cancer. He flew to New York City and met with her. She agreed to do the film.
Based on his admiration of ‘70s cinema, Penn sought out crew members that had worked during that era. He hired Hal Ashby’s long-time production designer Michael Haller and Anthony Richmond as his director of photography. The latter had worked on several key Nicholas Roeg films during ‘70s and that was the look Penn wanted to capture with his own film.
During rehearsals, Penn encouraged Morse, Mortensen and cast members Valeria Golina and Patricia Arquette to spend as much together as possible. This involved hanging out on location in Omaha. For the final confrontation between Frank and Joe in a bar, Penn had Morse and Mortensen rehearse for two weeks. The bar set was built in a gymnasium which allowed the two actors to shoot baskets when they needed to blow off steam. Morse felt that Mortensen was holding back during rehearsals. When it came to filming the scene, Penn recalled stimulating Mortensen’s temper by getting “a little bit personal. But I think he was professionally responsive. He knew where to go for what I was looking for.”
In his review for Newsweek magazine, David Ansen said of Penn’s direction, “You can sense that he's grappling with his own demons in this anguished story of a collision between brutishness and responsibility. Whatever its flaws, this one comes from the gut.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “And though the movie is sometimes too mannered (during one unaccountable stretch, Penn suddenly turns into Diane Arbus and peppers the screen with small-town grotesques), it has an accomplished rhythmic flow, a sense of people's destinies unfolding step by step.” However, USA Today gave the film two out of four stars and Susan Wloszczyna wrote, “To pump up the entertainment level, Penn tosses in a few freaks: a bearded lady, a demonic bartender (the aptly cast Dennis Hopper), a cross-eyed town crazy. But the sideshow can't leaven the unrelentingly heavy mood.”
In many of his roles, Penn often wrestles with notions of masculinity – what makes a man? You see it in films like At Close Range (1986), Dead Man Walking (1995) and Mystic River (2003). He continues this examination with The Indian Runner about two very different men – one who can express his emotions and one who cannot. Or, rather, when he does it comes out in rage and violence. How does someone like that exist in normal society? Frank is a free spirit that refuses to be tied down by the conventions of a normal family life and a 9 to 5 job. Joe knows this but thinks he can change his brother and is forced to realize that no one can domesticate him. The only solution is to allow Frank to be free to live his own life. Frank puts it this way, “There’s only two kinds of men in this hell: that’s heroes and outlaws. Which one are you?” Penn ends his film on an enigmatic note – one in which I think the end of Springsteen’s song addresses:
“Me and Franky 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, he just ain't no good”
One of the tantalizing questions The Indian Runner poses is, did being in the Vietnam War screw up Frank even more or was he already like that to begin with? Joe refers to his brother being a troublemaker in his youth. Where did he go wrong? Was he always that way? The film never answers these questions definitively but it is interesting to speculate every time I watch it. The only problem I have with this film is that Penn tends to lay the Indian runner analogy on a little too thick, especially in the scene where Frank and Joe chase each other through a cornfield late at night, but it’s a minor quibble in an otherwise fantastic directorial debut. While I enjoyed his subsequent efforts, The Crossing Guard (1995) and especially The Pledge (2001), I still regard The Indian Runner as his best film behind the camera. So many of Bruce Springsteen’s songs are mini-movies that tell a compelling story that it’s amazing no one has turned one into a film before. He is a master at depicting the struggles of the blue collar American in his songs; Penn gets that and successfully translated it into a film.
Carr, Jay. “Sean Penn Happier Behind Camera.” Boston Globe. December 26, 1991.
Dunphy, Catherine. “Penn Tired of Talking about Bad Boy Days.” Toronto Star. September 10, 1991.
Frankel, Martha. “After Writing & Directing The Indian Runner, Sean Penn Swears He’ll Never Act Again. Interview. September 1991.
Gristwood, Sarah. “Running Against Form.” The Guardian. November 28, 1991.
“How Sean Penn Found New Direction in Directing.” Philadelphia Inquirer. June 1992.
Kelly, Richard T. Sean Penn: His Life and Times. Faber & Faber. 2004.
Scott, Jay. “The Recasting of Sean Penn.” Globe and Mail. September 13, 1991.
Weber, Bruce. “Sean Penn, Human Tempest, Settles into the Auteur’s Life. The New York Times. September 15, 1991.