The Indian runner is a film with deep ambition. It seeks to dramatize nothing less than the history of violence within the United States and how this violence infects spirit after spirit, as a powerful and contagious disease. It is also the script and directorial debut for one of the world’s greatest actors, Sean Penn. The two-time Oscar-winning actor would go on to direct four more films and at some point openly discuss the possibility of retiring from acting to become a full-time filmmaker. The Indian runner demonstrates why Penn’s film style is important and under-appreciated.
In 1982, Sean Penn began dancing to photographer Pamela Springsteen, the sister of legendary songwriter Bruce Springsteen. When Springsteen released his dark and brooding acoustic masterpiece of history songs, “Nebraska,” Penn became obsessed with the track, “Highway Patrolman.” The song opens with the singer identifying as Joe Roberts, a Michigan police officer who began working for the state after losing his farm. He is married to a Mexican immigrant, Maria, and “always does an honest job.” When Springsteen sings in a tender and intimate voice, we learn that the greatest source of pain and frustration in Joe’s life is his brother, Frank. “Franky is no good,” Joe complains, admitting that throughout his life he has helped his brother clear the wreck of his own sins, while also ensuring that he avoids consequences. It’s easy to imagine that there is also guilt that works in line with Joe’s loyalty. The United States government dragged Frank into the Vietnam War, but gave Joe a “postponement of the farm.”
“Highway Patrolman,” which Johnny Cash would later cover, ends with Frank nearly killing a man in a bar. Joe chases him down highways and backroads in Michigan until he sees a sign that says, “Canadian Border 100 Miles.” Then he pulls his team car over his shoulder and sees Frank’s “taillights disappear”, the last thing he will ever see of his beloved brother. Springsteen repeats the chorus:
Me and Franky laugh and drink
Nothing feels better than blood on blood
Takin gets dancing with Maria when the band played “Night of the Johnstown Flood”
I grab him when he’s crazy like any brother would
Man turns his back on his family well, he is just not good
“Highway Patrolman” is one of Springsteen’s most heartfelt and brilliant songs. A particularly touching and beautiful version appears on the album “Live in Dublin”, which he released with the accompaniment of The Sessions Band – a massive modern folk unit, complete with strings, horns and backup singers.
Sean Penn Tells Cinema Richard T. Kelly in the Excellent Oral Story of Penn’s Film Career, Sean Penn: His life and times, one night, while visibly and audibly intoxicated, he told Springsteen, “I want to make a movie out of ‘Highway Patrolman.'”
The rock and roll star, who already did not care much for the quirky actor who was with his sister, responded with a combination of entertainment and download – laughing and remarking “Okay, Sean.” In 1991, less than ten years after the drunken exchange, The Indian runner opened nationally in cinemas. The opening credits announced, “Inspired by the Bruce Springsteen song, ‘Highway Patrolman.'” These words serve as Springsteen’s endorsement. Part of the contractual agreement gave Springsteen the right to refuse to have his name associated with the film. After a private screening, he thanked Penn for giving an in-depth and deeply touching presentation of his song. Many years after the release of The Indian runner, Bruce Springsteen’s record label would release a music video for “Highway Patrolman” with footage from Penn’s film.
In addition to praise and gratitude, Springsteen also allegedly asked Penn to explain the source of Frank’s anger. IN The Indian runner, Viggo Mortenson gives a brilliant portrayal of Frank, who far beyond an ordinary criminal is a borderline psychopath who takes delight in scary and inflicts his unsuspecting rage goals. According to Kelly’s biography, Penn explained to Springsteen that the only necessary answer comes from the title track of the album, where “Highway Patrolman” appears: Nebraska. The special song tells the story of Charles Starkweather, a storm killer who murdered eleven people on a road trip from the eponymous state to Wyoming. To close the song, Springsteen invents an exchange between Starkweather and an unnamed agent for the justice system. In response to the question “Why did you do that?”, Starkweather gives the cool answer: “There’s just a thinness in this world.”
According to Penn’s creation and Mortenson’s delivery, Frank is both a victim and an executioner. As he writes home from the Vietnam War, he complains to his fellow soldiers, who lament their involvement in the killing of civilians: “They expect their hair to remain dry in the rain.” In a scene that takes place late in the film, moments before Frank commits the murder that sends him toward the Canadian border, he condemns the greed and cruelty of the country and state that would forcibly take his brother’s farmland. “Beauty” acquires historical specificity with the title of the film and the recurring image of a mysterious Indian whose gaze makes Frank curl up in his seat.
As Penn told Kelly: “I stumbled upon a book by Peter Nabokov, a professor of anthropology in Berkeley, nephew of Vladimir. It was a chronicle of Native American races, its history in that culture. I spent some time with Nabokov, took some inspiration from him and put it in the film. “Penn explained that in addition to the short-lived meanness that Springsteen identified as motivation for violent crime, he also wanted to explore” ancestral sins, the settlers’ criminal past in the United States. ” It inhabits part of our subconscious because it was passed on by our fathers and their fathers and those before. I saw it as a kind of common disease in the culture, and – it’s a leap – but I wanted to see if it had anything to do, if not literally then politically, with the damaged spirit of people like Frank. ”
Indian Running: Native American History and Tradition is out of print and hard to find, but publicly available reviews make it clear that Nabokov was interested in finding the importance of running in indigenous culture as a place between physical and spiritual. Not only did several original uprisings begin with “ongoing messengers” bringing news of invasion, but many tribes believed that through intense and purposeless perseverance it was possible to communicate with mysterious forces in the universe.
In Sean Penn’s film, the Indian runner flashes across the screen at important moments, especially when Frank decides to pull his car over to the shoulder of the road in the last scene of the film. We also see the Indian runner before Frank and Joe’s father, well played by a non-mustache, Charles Brosnan, commit suicide, which happens the moment Joe watches footage of the Vietnam War on television. The runner acts as a presence of mysterious doom and leaves behind the violence that once robbed his people of their land, culture and life.
Given his volatility and Viggo Mortenson’s dark charismatic performance, it’s easy to focus on Frank when he sees the film, but Joe Roberts and the quiet tender and moving portrayal of David Morse serve as the real anchor of the story. There is a similar dynamic in play with their wives. Patricia Arquette offers such a fine performance as Frank’s wife that there are scenes when you look at her, it feels like being beaten in the gut. She communicates a wild, heartfelt innocence that Frank knows Frank will eventually destroy. Valeria Golina plays Maria, Frank’s wife, and she offers a different version of marriage and friendship. She immediately identifies Frank as a threat and spends her days learning English for Latino immigrants – familiar with the darkness of the American experience, but still eager to help others assimilate into “the freedom and home of the brave.” She maintains faith – a property that lies at the heart of the film.
The film opens with Joe in a highway chase with a psychotic criminal. When the criminal sees that he can not run over Joe, he withdraws and draws his gun. Before he can open fire, Joe puts him away with a single explosion. “I was trying to tell myself that I was doing my job,” Joe reflects in his story about the film, “that it was self-defense. I did not believe myself. ”
Joe realizes that a certain amount of violence lives in him, but perhaps he is better able to control it than Frank. He has found reason to live beyond anger and hostility to “evil in the world.” Before Frank commits murder, he describes that pettiness and then asks Joe to “open his eyes.” “My eyes are open,” Joe replies, “and I love looking at my wife and baby every day. I love looking at my home. ”
The love within Frank cannot survive the bad. Penn makes clever allusion to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” by letting the rhythmic beating work with the construction equipment where Frank works constantly drown out his thoughts. The dump is even there when Frank’s baby is born – a scene showing an actual birth. Penn managed to convince a couple in Nebraska – where the film was shot – to allow the recording of their child’s birth.
In a life imitating art connection, Sean Penn’s first child was born during the filming of The Indian runner. The timing was nothing but a coincidence, but David Morse found it symbolic of why Penn was attracted to “Highway Patrolman.” He explained to Richard Kelly that he believed there were parts of Joe and Frank within Sean Penn himself – a duality that might explain why the screen legend is famous for both his humanitarian leadership and vicious temperament.
The error in The Indian runner is that Penn never gives the audience a moment to understand Joe’s love from Frank. Springsteen sings of “Laughing and drinking … taking turns dancing with Maria.” A visualization of this line could have shown that Frank also possesses a duality. Instead, the film shows only his cruelty and psychosis.
The Indian runner makes creative and emotional use of the concluding line of Springsteen’s chorus: “A man turns his back on his family, yes, he’s just not good.”
In the song and most of the film, the line serves as Joe’s justification for always coming to Frank’s rescue. The fraternal bond outweighs all ethical and practical considerations. At the conclusion of the film, Joe targets his own brother with excoriation. They stand on the shoulder of the road. Frank steps out of the car and Joe does not see Frank the adult, but in a heartbreaking moment he sees Frank as a child. The sight of Frank as a boy freezes Joe and allows him to perform one last act of charity for his troubled siblings. As Frank gets back in the vehicle and drives towards Canada, Joe notices how he knows he will never see Frank again.
“He turned his back on his family,” Joe realizes.
What most do The Indian runner interestingly, for all its avant-garde technique and certainly non-commercial pacing, it is a traditional moral story. It equates Joe’s old-fashioned moral values with Frank’s nihilism.
Perhaps Morse is right that Frank and Joe live in the spirit of Sean Penn, and perhaps Penn is right that the whole of America is struggling with a dangerous form of nihilism that first arose when the settlers forcibly stole the land from the continent’s native peoples, but each person still has to choose whether he wants to believe in something good or not, and to act on that belief. Joe chooses to have faith, and as a result The Indian runner is more hopeful than Springsteen’s record, Nebraska. The concluding song, “Reason to Believe”, is a cynical mockery of people who maintain hope when the world collapses around them.
The Indian runner ends with Joe telling the audience that after seeing Frank escape, he went home to his family, hugged his child and kissed his wife. The film is not cynical – nor is it naive. It is a realistic celebration of the power of love and the opportunity to survive even the worst acts of violence.