Film-Related & Film Reviews 1985-1994

The Indian Runner: The Classic

Source: At The Movies, ABC (Australia)

A painful story of heartbreak, heartache, disappointment, despair, and the tragic side of love.

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When I first saw The Indian Runner at my first Cannes Film Festival in 1991 I was so exhilarated at the talent shown by an actor I admired with his first film as writer/director. He was Sean Penn and I await every film from him because they show a depth of humanity rarely seen in cinema, from The Crossing Guard, to The Pledge to Into The Wild. But for me it all began with The Indian Runner. Set in the late 60's, in Nebraska it juxtaposes varying views of life through two brothers.

The elder Joe, played with heartwrenching sincerity by David Morse - I'll always love him for this role - is a former farmer, now a cop, a highway patrolman. The film was inspired by Bruce Springsteen's song of that name. He's happily married to Maria, Valeria Golina and he has a gorgeous baby, who is a surprisingly good actor. But brother Frank - Viggo Mortensen - is the problem child, the younger brother who as a Vietnam vet is still a hellraiser.

I love the fact that both sides of Sean Penn at that time are represented in this film, the hellraiser and the belief in family, in ordinary, decent good things. It's ultimately so compassionate, it's a film about family, about brothers, about the dark and light side of all of us. Looking at it again I can maybe see some flaws but I don't care, for me this is one of my great films of all time. The soundtrack is fabulous, performances are great, young Patricia Arquette was a revelation as Frank's girlfriend.

This was a film by a young man, he was only 31 when he made it that showed the mark of someone who was interested in cinema as a place of exploration about us as humans. I saw it the other night again, just to remind me how much I loved it and I bawled my eyes out, again.

Further comments


DAVID: Well, Margaret, I must say I'm very pleased that you chose this because I saw it in Cannes. It was in the Directors' Fortnight in Cannes in 1991 and I looked up my original notes and I guess seeing it in the context of a lot of films at a festival, I wrote that it was very good but it sort of had flat patches. So I watched it again a few days ago and it was those flat patches that I found I love most actually.


DAVID: The scenes that don't seem to really add anything very much, like when David Morse is talking to the eccentric woman in pink and she just won't stop talking or the guy who stands in the hotel corridor all the time and those sort of marginal characters are so beautifully used in the film. You didn't mention Charles Bronson.


DAVID: Charles Bronson is the father and he, of course, had an image of Death Wish vigilante, murderer, killer roles and he plays such a beautiful part as the father. He's this quiet, gentle, rather sad, resigned man and the scene where he phones David Morse in the middle of the night to talk about some minor repair that needs doing is just a marvellous scene.

MARGARET: I know. I know. I know. Look, every performance in this is just spot on. I was electrified by Viggo Mortensen. I must have seen him before in Young Guns [sic] but he just leapt off the screen in this film. I thought he was just amazing. But you think Penn, coming from the background of being such a fine performer himself, actually knows how to choose the people that he would want to direct in his films and knows how to get the best out of them too.

DAVID: And when you think about it, he's only directed four features.


DAVID: Each one of them is very, very good. He also did that segment for the 911 film.

MARGARET: Yes, I know.

DAVID: And they've all been really quite wonderful.


DAVID: And it's a shame, in a way, he doesn't do more films but he obviously takes his time just to make the films he really wants to make.

MARGARET: Well, it took a long time to get The Indian Runner up and I know that he could have got money if he was starring in it. People wanted him to star in it and he actually only wanted to direct. This is a writing/directing effort of major order. I think it's wonderful.
Last edited: 24 June 2012 06:09:07