Mortensen's tortured Vietnam vet outlaw teaches us that while we may be flawed, the only hope is to live a little better
by Rowan Righelato
"I got some skeeter bites that need scratching. How about you and me go fiddle with the hydraulics?"
Not something you'd ever hear George Clooney whisper into his on-screen beau's ear. But then, Viggo Mortensen's Frank in The Indian Runner is no slick Hollywood seducer. Recently returned from Vietnam, Frank is a troubled, angry soul, played utterly convincingly by Mortensen in his first major role.
The Indian Runner (1990) was Sean Penn's first film as writer-director. It's a throwback to the 70s, the golden age of American cinema – rambling, emotional and humanist, but with a sharp, inventive visual style, like a Cassavetes movie shot by Scorsese. Film writer Bill Craske likened the film to a blues ballad for its oscillation between uplifting humour and melancholic despair.
With echoes of Sam Shepard's True West, the story centres on the relationship between Frank and his brother Joe, played by David Morse. Joe is the yin to Frank's yang: moral, loving, responsible. When a drunken Frank tells his brother there are only two kinds of men – "heroes and outlaws" – we are in no doubt as to which brother is which. With those soulful, sloping eyes, Morse conveys Joe's heartbreak at finding himself unable to connect with Frank.
This is a film filled with beautifully observed moments. The way Penn goes into slow motion when Frank's girlfriend Dorothy (Patricia Arquette) leaps across the room to the ringing telephone after waiting for his call, her face alight with joy, her parents sharing an anxious glance. Frank and Joe's father (Charles Bronson) calling Joe in the middle of the night, unable to articulate his loneliness after having lost his wife, trying to hide his pain by telling Joe of some trivial domestic task he thinks his son should do.
What makes these moments so powerful is the authenticity that Penn and his actors imbue them with, a truth most shockingly present during the scene in which Frank requests that Dorothy attend to his mosquito bites, as a way of expressing his amorous mood.
The scene opens charmingly with Frank and the pregnant Dorothy canoodling at home. Frank has a hand on Dorothy's bump, and is talking softly to the baby inside. Seeing the affection between the parents-to-be is reassuring, not least because we see the volatile Frank smiling and relaxed, apparently in a playful mood. Then he suggests fiddling with the hydraulics.
Arquette is perfectly cast, her natural aura of gentle goodness and purity making what follows all the more horrific to watch. At Dorothy's admonishment- "Frank don't talk like that!" - Frank switches. If we weren't so caught up in the film itself, we would be in awe of Mortensen's skill here. His acting is breathtaking, as he builds from disappointment through hurt to a mean sarcasm - "Did I say the wrong thing?" that turns quickly to simmering anger - "Is it that we're strangers? We're not strangers". He is genuinely frightening to watch, the whole scene feels as if we are onlookers at a real-life domestic dispute. By the time Dorothy tells him "I don't know what you're talking about. Let's eat", he is ready to explode.
Frank's floodgates are wide open, and he unleashes a torrent of pent-up hatred on Dorothy, standing over her, glowering, taking handfuls of food from his plate, stuffing it into his mouth and spitting it into her face. "You eat! You. Eat." Even as Lucifer in The Prophecy, Viggo was never nastier.
Central to the drama is the theme of impending fatherhood. The lives of Frank and Joe mirror one another in that, as the film opens, Joe already has a baby, and the story builds towards the birth of Frank's child. My own personal fondness for the film has to do with the birth of my son at around the time the film came out. Indelible in my mind is a shot of a pensive Joe sitting under a tree, his baby playing on the grass beside him. There is something profoundly beautiful about the image, something primal - Morse's bulk dominating the frame, with the tiny infant child crawling around under his worried, watchful eye.
This is a film to love for its unflinching honesty, it's willingness, as Craske puts it, to "investigate human fallibility in all its ugly manifestations". It is to be treasured for its ambition to offer us a true reflection of ourselves, with all our flaws. And finally, for the hope inherent in that act – that from it we might learn to live a little better.