The Indian Runner

Courtesy of sagralisse
Courtesy of sagralisse.
© Westmount.
I think Sean was still a little nervous going into the bar scene. Then I remember a real struggle for what was going to happen, what the moments were going to be between the two of them. And something happened, it crystallized, and suddenly Viggo was on fire. - David Morse

The Indian Runner

DON PHILLIPS: Over at his place Sean had a really interesting book of photographs from the sixties by Dennis Hopper-just plain ordinary folks across the country. There was a picture of a guy at a diner, with his hair up in the air, wearing a white shirt with the cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve and a tattoo on his arm. And Sean said, 'That's Frank!' Then Sean calls me and says, 'I got the television on here, it's HBO, and there's a movie on called Fresh Horses, and there's this actor in it . . . '

SEAN PENN: I was over at Robin [Wright]'s little house in Santa Monica Canyon, waiting for her to get dressed for a date. The television was on, sound off, and I saw a face: he was only a cameo in a movie, but I saw the face that I'd had in my head when I wrote Indian Runner. He had something, an angularity, a severity to his handsomeness that I perceived as being 'like Frank'. So I watched the movie through, and I called Don and said, 'Find out who he is.'

When Viggo Met Sean
7 Sept 2007
Excerpted from Sean Penn: His Life and Times by Richard T. Kelly (UK: Faber and Faber, US: Canongate US, 2004)

Around 1991 while the actor's career was languishing, he met Sean Penn who by chance had seen one of his films on a cable channel. 'Seeing his face and his expression, I knew it was him. I was praying for such a wonderful actor. I wasn't disappointed,' recalls Penn. So what had he seen? Mortensen's interpretation, in Penn's film "The Indian Runner', of Frank, a Vietnam veteran who cannot adapt to civilian life, an habitual rebel, mutinous, violent, alcoholic, but at the same time vulnerable and touching, is perfect. His presence is both incandescent and dignified, recalling that of Robert de Niro in Scorcese's "Mean Streets'.

Viggo Mortensen: The magician of The Lord of the Rings
by Aurelie Raya
Paris Match
Jan 8, 2004

'One day, during the filming of I can't remember which film, I went back to my hotel and found a message: "Sean Penn called you," with a telephone number. I asked myself which of my friends was playing a trick. And there was a spelling mistake in Sean. I call: "Sean Penn?" "Yeah," replies Sean Penn, grumpily. "It's Viggo Mortensen. What do you want?" I didn't even realise I could have been friendlier. (Laughs.) And then, he told me about "Indian Runner'. He saw me in "Fresh Horses', a TV film which I had made for HBO. I had a little scene at the end. He sent me the script and I was instantly hooked. At the start, I preferred the character which was finally played by David Morse. Mine was just described as "the baddy'. But I said to myself that, behind the slightly too obvious behaviour of Frank Roberts, there had to be a really complex reason. The filming was extremely interesting ... The more so because Sean was very involved. It was there I became friends with Dennis Hopper. After that, the offers arrived.'

Viggo Mortensen
Viggo Mortensen: The Soul of a Warrior
by Juliette Michaud
Studio Magazine
December 2002

SEAN PENN: "Viggo's inherent kindness as a guy showed in a sort of languid movement. And that was a lesson for me about what parts of people express themselves without trying."

When Viggo Met Sean
7 Sept 2007
Excerpted from Sean Penn: His Life and Times by Richard T. Kelly (UK: Faber and Faber, US: Canongate US, 2004)

Once Mortensen was cast, Penn helped him fully plumb the depths of his character. 'I had always thought of Frank as a barking dog that bites,' Penn says, 'so I asked Viggo to spend some time with a friend of mine who's a Hell's Angel who knows the world and also is a fighter - not that there's a lot of fighting in the movie, but I felt that he should know it and be able to feel that physical confidence.'

Sean Penn Bites Back
By Christopher Connelly
October 1991

Facially, Mortensen looks like a cross between Sam Shepard and echt movie villain Lance Henriksen, a suggestion enhanced by his character's myriad jailhouse tattoos (applied in hours-long makeup sessions) and the unperiodlike leather brace on his right hand and wrist, which he wears constantly and removes only immediately before shooting. Word on the set is that Mortensen busted a knuckle and sprained his wrist during rehearsals for a fight scene, but when asked about the injury, his eyes take on a demonic glint.

'Sean Penn,' he says, 'bit me.'

Sean Penn Bites Back
By Christopher Connelly
October 1991

DAVID MORSE: Sean had decided that Viggo and I were going to rehearse for two weeks, but we were only going to rehearse our big scene in the bar. So he had a bar set up in a gymnasium where we could shoot baskets but also really do our work. And during those two weeks, I have a feeling it was harder for Viggo, because Sean identified more with the role of Frank, and he would really try to push him to do certain things. But Viggo just kept holding back. He never really did the scene in those two weeks.... I think Sean was still a little nervous going into the bar scene. Then I remember a real struggle for what was going to happen, what the moments were going to be between the two of them. And something happened, it crystallized, and suddenly Viggo was on fire.

When Viggo Met Sean
7 Sept 2007
Excerpted from Sean Penn: His Life and Times by Richard T. Kelly (UK: Faber and Faber, US: Canongate US, 2004)

SEAN PENN: I think I stimulated Viggo's temper. And, as I remember, I think I got a little bit personal. But I think he was professionally responsive, he knew where to go for what I was looking for. When you're abusive to an actor, it's one thing-when you're abusive to a character, it's another. And I think I found it was helpful to both of us to raise my own tempo a little bit, get in the same place as him, share the vibe.

When Viggo Met Sean
7 Sept 2007
Excerpted from Sean Penn: His Life and Times by Richard T. Kelly (UK: Faber and Faber, US: Canongate US, 2004)

'Hopefully what will come across is that he does things he does because he's pure, pure good and pure bad,' explains Mortensen. 'I mean, compared to me and most people I know - we kind of have little controls and little ways of limiting our behaviour and our reactions to people. Frank doesn't really do that.'

Sean Penn Bites Back
By Christopher Connelly
October 1991

"He was dazzlingly committed all the time. He literally brings the kitchen sink for a character," says Penn, who delighted in seeing Mortensen arrive on set each day with a "Santa Claus sack" full of various props he'd chosen. "He's an often solitary, very poetic creature, Viggo, and all of that worked [for the movie]."

History Teacher
by Missy Schwartz
Entertainment Weekly
August 19, 2005

This is room 202, practically at the top of the stairs, which has been dressed as Frank's crash pad. Mortensen walks in and surveys its detritus. He takes a washcloth from the room's sink, folds it, and drapes it over the railing at the foot of the, not just yet. First, he goes to the bottle of Southern Comfort that sits on the dresser, lies on the bed, and puts the bottle between his legs to open it. Then he splashes some sour mash on the washcloth and re-drapes it. With his thumb over the top, he sprinkles more over the sheets and replaces the bottle. Finally, he ponders the room's Bible: Should it go over the bed? No. Under the pillow? No.

Then he seems to get an idea: he grabs his switchblade, inserts it as a bookmark, and places the Bible on the bed. There.

Viggo's attention to detail on the IR set
Sean Penn Bites Back
By Christopher Connelly
October 1991

"Charles Bronson I didn't get to know extremely well but I liked him; in fact, there's a version of the scene where I go to my parents' house at the beginning of the story. It was a really interesing scene with Charles and Sandy Dennis playing really well. In fact Charles delivered some of the best acting I've ever seen. Shame it didn't make the movie, but I could understand Sean's reasons. He thought my character should be more messed up. But it was a scene that was very awkward; I was high, and was really insulting. It was horrible, but also fascinating."

Viggo Mortensen
November 2007

DENNIS HOPPER: If you play a small part in a picture, it's nice to have a beginning, a middle and an end: that one had a middle and an end, and the end comes very quickly [laughs]. I remember rubbing the bar a lot. 'OK, yeah, better get this bar cleaned, man.' Then I give a little speech to Viggo's character. And then he kills me...

When Viggo Met Sean
7 Sept 2007
Excerpted from Sean Penn: His Life and Times by Richard T. Kelly (UK: Faber and Faber, US: Canongate US, 2004)

In a pivotal scene in The Indian Runner, Sean Penn's first film as a director, a character named Frank Roberts suddenly attacks a bartender played by Dennis Hopper, who is cleaning blood off the bar. Is the blood symbolic of something that triggers the attack? "No," says Viggo Mortensen, who plays the violent Frank. "It was Dennis's breath."

Tough Guy
Eliza Krause
23 September 1991

Dennis Hopper, who starred in the movie with him ("I'm an old barkeeper he murders at the end," Hopper explains), calls it one of Mortensen's best roles ever. "He's not a good actor, he's a great fucking actor," Hopper says. "I'm not a fan of Sean's other two movies, but this is a hell of a movie. Don't live another day without seeing it. Mortensen is it. He's the real deal."

Dennis Hopper
Finding Viggo
By Alex Kuczynski
Vanity Fair magazine
January 2004

"I remember Sean saying to me on about the sixth week of shooting," Indian producer Phillips recalls, "'Don, Viggo's going to be a humongous star.'"

Don Phillips
The Hero Returns
By Tom Roston
Premiere 2003


Still, it's the brothers who hold the screen. Mortensen, working in hot colors, and Morse, working in gray, deliver sensational performances.

Peter Travers
Rolling Stone

As moody and volatile as the problematic Frankie, "The Indian Runner" starts off with a killing and sustains a threat of possible violence throughout even its gentlest episodes. That threat is especially evident in the presence of Mr. Mortensen, a magnetic actor capable of both scary outbursts and eerie, reptilian calm. (Mr. Penn's own acting style is strongly echoed in this performance.) It is some measure of Mr. Mortensen's savage, mocking ferocity that in a final confrontation with Dennis Hopper, who plays a bartender given to in-your-face philosophizing, Mr. Hopper seems easily the tamer of the two.

Janet Maslin
New York Times
20 September 1991

The setting is rural Nebraska in the late 1960s. Joe is an upright, rock-like cop, an ex-farmer forced off the land. Frank, his younger sibling, is a tattooed Vietnam veteran and a shiftless, boozing wastrel. A tailor-made part for Penn, perhaps, but Viggo Mortensen plays him, with considerable subtlety. Equally impressive is David Morse as Joe, the decent man carrying a burden of guilt for his brother.

George Perry
The Sunday Times
December 1, 1991

This is a film to be taken seriously: you can tell by the slow, brooding pace, the air of misery, the use of Indian legends to give mythic relevance to events that never quite deserve them.

Taking his cue from Bruce Springsteen's song "Highway Patrolman", Penn spins a morose tale of two brothers in late Sixties' Nebraska: one good (local cop, family man) and one bad (Vietnam veteran, petty criminal). It is easy to see Penn's furrowed brows behind Frank, the hell-raising brother who fights shy of responsibility and spits out half-chewed peas at his pregnant child bride.
Viggo Mortensen, playing Frank, gives a fine performance. But he unbalances the film. Against this dark jester, David Morse (as Joe the good egg) is left dangling, flashing empty anguish as he tries to return Frank to the fold following the sudden deaths of both parents (Sandy Dennis blink and you miss her and Charles Bronson).

Geoff Brown
The Times
November 28, 1991

As Frank, the returning soldier who can't keep to the straight and narrow, Mortensen was frighteningly unknowable. When you feel his anger brewing-and it comes out of nowhere, like a freak storm-you want to duck for cover. Sometimes the alarm dissipates; in my favorite scene from the film, he startles a neighbor who has called at his door, yanking her Elvis t-shirt over her face while an inquisitive old coot looks on. Mortensen oscillates between drowsy menace and raucous mania, making you unsure of the scene's intended tone, and of him; it recalls Jack Nicholson's infamous diner scene in Five Easy Pieces, only without the comforting hint of showmanship. And if there is in recent cinema a more convincing scene of psychological torture than the moment when Mortensen rages against a teeny-weeny Patricia Arquette, spattering her with mouthfuls of food, I'd really rather not see it, thank you.

On Viggo Mortensen
By Ryan Gilbey
4 December 2007

As Frankie, Mortensen has a plum role for an actor starting out and grabs it with both hands. Deploying that unsettling stare and those bacon-slicer cheekbones for the first time, he creates a memorably feral, seductive and unpredictable lost soul with a capacity to switch from charm to menace in an instant that brings to mind a young Kirk Douglas. It's no surprise that after this he was in regular demand for characters right across the spectrum even before Lord Of The Rings sent him stratospheric. The sheer charisma and screen presence he exhibited there, and in gems such as A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises since, are already plainly in evidence.

The Indian Runner (1991) Film Review
By Jeff Robson
Eye for Film
14 September 2011

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.

Why I love… Viggo Mortensen's Frank in The Indian Runner
Rowan Righelato
The Guardian
27 September 2013

Last edited: 28 June 2014 13:26:27