The Indian Runner is actor Sean Penn's debut as writer and director, and is a film that makes a firm first statement that he has a grasp on strong and gripping subject matter.
Set at the beginning of the 70s, the film explores the relationship between two very different brothers: family man, cop, and gentle giant Joe (played by the ubiquitous David Morse, at last playing a character other than a terrorist's sidekick, in a lead role that really shows his qualities the way a shoddy TV movie like The Langoliers never could), and the tearaway wastrel Frank (played by Viggo Mortensen in equally fine form).
Once a close farming family, the two have been apart for some time, but the beginning of the film sees Frank returning from Vietnam and paying a visit to Joe, who himself misses the closeness they had and is at this time suffering from the guilt of having to shoot and kill for the first time when chasing a criminal. However, it soon becomes apparent that Frank, who had gained a reputation as the town's hell raiser before he went to war, has not changed his ways, and has nurtured the wild and carefree attitude of his youth and become a dangerously depressed loose cannon of a man, festering in bars and bedsits all day and soon having numerous run-ins with the law.
The movie charts the end of an era for this family, as their parents pass away, Joe settles with his wife and child and reconciles his lost passion for farming, and Frank just begins to lose all will to embrace society, despite the continuous support of his brother Joe and the love of his flower-child girlfriend Dorothy (played by a dozy Patricia Arquette). By far the most gripping parts of the film are the private focused conversations between Joe and Frank, where they reflect on the past and talk very credibly as brothers, thanks to both great acting and some clever and observant script, full of their esoteric rhyming and banter. It is through these chats that the significance of the film´s title becomes known, though it is deliberately cryptic. The Indian runners, message carriers of an older time in their land, were something that their father told them stories about as children, and as they have grown up has stayed with them as a symbol of how man can "become" his own message, managing with willpower to struggle through the dark and the wild; a symbol of purpose. For Frank, this is made visual at many points, as he often hallucinates about American Indians, who seem to stare and wave at him as if to question his own actions. As Frank hits rock bottom at the end of the film, there is one last powerful exchange of words between the brothers, as Frank gives what can only be described as a misanthropic outcry by someone who really does not have the words to fully express it, and he attempts to explain to Joe why he just cannot "come good" no matter how many chances he's given.
Despite its very sleepy, suburban setting, The Indian Runner is a surprisingly profound film, and benefits from a tender soundtrack of original music as well as numerous 60s psychedelic numbers, which have lyrics with some significance to the film (it is worth noting that Penn says the entire tale was based on an old Bruce Springsteen song). Most interesting for me was Viggo Mortensen's portrayal of a seemingly regular guy who, in his mannerisms and way of speaking, really comes across as a spiteful, restless, and basically evil person. Other actors have long played such characters in their own way, but this performance has a certain edge that is very earthy and sometimes disturbing.
A worthy addition to anyone's film collection.