The Indian Runner (1991)

by stronged

Stars: 3

Directed by:

Sean Penn


David Morse, Viggo Mortenson, Valeria Golino, Patricia Arquette, Charles Bronson, Dennis Hopper.


Brothers Joe (Morse) and Frank (Mortenson) are opposites in every way. The former, the small town’s heroic sheriff with a happy Mexican wife (Golino) and child whilst the latter the black sheep of the family and town with a chip on his shoulder about life in general. Joe struggles to care for his younger brother, re-introducing him into the township under his guidance to conform him to the law-abiding way of life. Frank cannot resolve his grievances with the world around him resulting in a clash with his brother and the people dearest to him.


Great soundtrack and exploration of “cool.” Touches upon some interesting topics yet the poor production standards and clunky dialogue lets it down. Worth a watch but i wouldn’t head in with great expectations.


Sean Penn’s directorial debut long before his renowned break into cinema as the celebrity actor we all know him as in such films as Carlito’s Way and Dead Man Walking (plus more recently; Mystic River, I Am Sam, The Assassination of Richard Nixon and Milk). And this film reeks of a first film. It’s poor 35mm grade seems to look similar to a 16mm print, it’s stilted performances and dialogue refusing to give the narrative a constant sense of flow, it’s sloppy narrative structure in thorough need of a good tightening up, the low-fi production standards and perhaps overly reliant necessary for a good soundtrack to attract it’s audience to the crucial emotional notes.

However, while detailing such clunky production realities i must also stress that even at this stumbling beginning Penn shows his talent for attracting A-Class talent and striving for something altogether spiritual and wholesome in the way that he tells his stories. It seems to be a common thread in his directorial set that is an admirable trait in the often times superficial, overly manufactured productions that are pumped out of the States like clock work. His quiet sense of nobility in telling his stories seem to be grounded in the natural world that surrounds his characters and explores the complexities of human nature from the inside out.

I feel it is worthwhile for anyone interested in filmmaking to check this piece out to get a sense of certain challenges in a film of this magnitude. It is almost like we go along the journey with Penn, learning from his faults (ie. the scene where Bronson is having a family dinner with Morse, Golino and their kid is an example of editing around performance limitations. The kid clearly only reacting in the two shot with Bronson and therefore the necessary to cut around so much) and celebrating his triumphs. He must have learned substantially from this first effort for his next film, The Crossing Guard (with Jack Nicholson), was a huge step up in complexity of narrative and production standards – over time becoming a cult classic.

After having read Jung recently i find the struggle between the dark and light characters in this narrative appealing to my interests. Also, even though i didn’t find the Native American mythology integrated too well in the narrative, i find the legend of the Indian Runner an interesting subject to explore. It is a shame that Native American mythology feels much more accessible than Indigenous Australian mythology is due to the diverse exploration through American cinema and media. If only we could connect with our own Indigenous past and culture as easily as America has. My hunch is that Indigenous Australians have much to give to our Western society to better our lifestyles and use of the land.

PS. Such a shame that Hopper is RIP. He was a true visionary and artist.