The Indian Runner
by Michelle Erica Green

My name is Joe Roberts, I work for the state,
I'm a sergeant out of Perrineville, Barracks Number 8,
I always done an honest job, as honest as I could,
I got a brother named Frankie and Frankie ain't no good.

Sean Penn based his first outing as a film writer-director on "Highway Patrolman," a song from Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska -- the Boss's bleak look at the despair under the surface of the American dream and the convictions that allow people to survive it. It's not necessary to know the song to appreciate the movie, but it adds another dimension to think of the movie in the context of a folk song with the ending embedded in its chorus, "A man turns his back on his family, well, he just ain't no good."

The Indian Runner centers on two brothers, Joe and Frank Roberts -- the former a farmer turned police officer, the latter a drifter who served in Vietnam and spent time in prison. After a family tragedy in the late 1960s, Frank comes back to town with his pregnant girlfriend Dorothy. They move into his late parents' house and Frank gets a job as a welder in the construction of a new highway bridge. But restless, violent impulses continue to plague Frank, despite Joe's efforts to show him that the joys of family and home can sustain a man through hard times.

Joe is satisfied to spend time with his wife and son, to grow vegetables in his backyard and to try to be a good cop. But Frank says that Joe lost his fire when he lost his farm and believes they are both doomed to the slow desperation that destroyed their parents. The only way Frank knows how to fight it is by acting out brutally. He marries Dorothy and tries to emulate his older brother's acceptance of the simple pleasures of life, but he can't control his resentment. This is a world in which everyone needs a coping mechanism -- Joe smokes, his wife Maria sneaks pot into the house -- but Frank takes all his forms of release to excess, throwing tantrums, drinking himself into oblivion and getting into bar-fights because he doesn't like the way someone glances at him.

The film never makes clear how Frank became so damaged. A tour of duty in Vietnam clearly left scars, as did his twelve-stepping mother and repressed, prejudiced father. Yet Joe has emerged remarkably unscathed from a similar childhood and is coping with having lost his farm. He's respected as a policeman, admired by the kooky old folk of the town. When he's forced to shoot a man in the line of duty, he vomits and weeps afterward. For Joe, the love of simple things isn't just an idea to which he gives lip-service; it's sufficient reason to be happy no matter how bad things become outside. Thus he is compelled to try to save Frank even though he knows his brother may be beyond hope.

The Indian Runner takes its title from a myth Frank describes to Joe during a drunken conversation late one night beside a cornfield. The field used to be part of Joe's farm, and Joe can't look at it without visualizing how much better it looked when he owned it. Frank claims that Indian runners carrying messages used to roam that land, safe from wolves and bears because of their incredible speed: "Independent of time and space, the runner becomes his message." He makes a doubtful Joe chase him through the dark cornfield to prove that a runner could outrun any predator, insisting that if Joe is a bear, then he is a message.

But the Indians exist only in Frank's hallucinations, and the message seems to be that he can't run fast enough to escape from himself. He sees visions of a painted, aging Indian runner several times during the film, always during acts of escapism -- twice while fleeing painful family situations and once in the midst of committing a horrific act of violence that will remove him forever from his previous bonds. Joe receives a different sort of message when he digs a garden in his yard in a limited attempt to regain his passion: he finds an arrowhead buried in the soil, which he interprets as a blessing. It's a small thing, yet it epitomizes the fundamental differences between the brothers. Frank divides all men into heroes and outlaws, romanticizing himself as the latter while mocking Joe as the passive good guy. But Joe insists that men only come strong and weak, "and you ain't strong."

Still, Joe loves Frank, and may be the only person who ever has done so with the comprehension of Frank's darkness that immature Dorothy lacks. The brothers speak a funny rhyming language and fall into humorous patter together like twins. There's a perverse intimacy to Frank's contact with Joe, with whom he dances flamboyantly at his own wedding to a woman he calls "little sister." Frank has no qualms about standing around naked in front of an embarrassed Joe or being tickled silly by him, but it's nearly impossible for Frank to express painful feelings to him, particularly about the losses in their family and his doubts about raising a child. Not so Joe; upon realizing that Frank admires their suicidal father for the courage of his convictions, Joe says only, "I love you anyway."

Visually, the film emphasizes working-class disenfranchisement and puts an ostensibly political spin on Frank's problems. The film opens and closes on barren landscapes -- a snow-covered field, a deserted, dark highway -- yet Joe sees the possibility of abundance everywhere, fields that could be planted, while his brother sees only Hell, epitomized by the flames of the welding equipment he uses to fix a bridge "for fat retired men and their fat wives and fat kids to drive over in their motor homes." A giant, soiled U.S. flag flies near the hotel where he stays when he is released from prison -- an ugly image of the promise of freedom and prosperity that he can't seem to grasp. The bars of Frank's prison cell are recalled later in the metal beams of the bridge, and the blood spilled in the opening sequence returns again and again as a symbol of blood bonds.

Frank's tattoos, which are among the more memorable images in The Indian Runner, form an odd combination of patriotic and rebellious images. One tattoo has the words "mom" and "pop" crossing each other. One depicts an animal skull. There's an eagle extending its talons toward one nipple and a spiderweb surrounding the other. The letters over Frank's knuckles read "KILL" and "FUCK," and he has a swastika on his forearm. He also has a Confederate flag on display in his living room, yet he wears American flags on his cowboy hat.

The cowboys-and-Indians theme recurs in the form of old family movie footage of Frank and Joe playing as kids, with Frank in the role of cowboy, shooting toy guns at his relatives. It's ironic given his self-definition as an Indian runner, just as it's ironic that we first see Frank wearing his uniform from Vietnam -- looking like a hero, as Joe says. With his stereotypical markings as an angry young man, Frank is at once an anti-hero and a tragic figure. He could be a quintessentially American symbol of his era, but too many loose ends distance him from the horrors of Vietnam and the poverty of the heartland. It's not clear what made Frank such a sad being, nor what message he carries for anyone else.

In one of the movie's superb sequences set to music -- in this case, Jefferson Airplane's "Comin' Back To Me" -- Frank turns up uninvited at a party at a mansion and steals a car. While rich kids dance and prepare to eat a roasted pig, Frank robs a gas station, then destroys the getaway vehicle by pouring gasoline over it and lighting it on fire with a lei from the party, dropped from a bridge. Meanwhile, Dorothy waits for him in agonized boredom as her parents watch TV; Joe watches an old war movie and tries to sleep; and their father watches movies of Frank and Joe as children, sliding into depression. "I realize I've been here before," the song plays as Joe lies in bed smoking and his tearful father leaves the room with the camera still running. Only Frank and his girlfriend seem to be going anywhere in the present, though they're driving into the night with stolen money.

It's hard to come up with a simple interpretation of the bleak fact that Frank appears to be right about Joe lacking fire, and his son may be destined for the same painfully limited life as his father. Still, as Joe points out to Frank, his violent, dangerous, destructive alternatives are far worse. On several occasions the soundtrack employs a man's heartbeat to suggest that Frank is trapped not by his origins or his lack of prospects, but within his own body, from which there is no escape but death.

The bleakness of The Indian Runner is offset by astonishingly vivid performances, particularly by David Morse as Joe and Viggo Mortensen as Frank, but also Charles Bronson as their father and Patricia Arquette as Dorothy. The protagonists and their relationships are multidimensional and credible, even though many of the background characters border on carnivalesque (a bearded lady, a quirky bartender played by the iconic Dennis Hopper).

The style of the film is reflective of that of John Cassavetes, who is one of its dedicatees. It's free of flashbacks and overdramatized tearful scenes; Joe cries a lot, Frank rarely, but neither does so at expected moments like funerals or partings. The engaging soundtrack offers subtle comments on the events of the film but doesn't attempt to manipulate the viewer's emotions with swelling crescendos or sad ballads during appropriate scenes. This is not a movie for the squeamish -- in addition to explicit footage of a woman giving birth, there's a great deal of bloodletting -- but it's a gutsy offering from a first-time director, spare and unsparing, without a trace of feel-good cliché.

Penn does close The Indian Runner with a Rabindranath Tagore quote about every new child bringing the message that God is not yet discouraged of man. Yet it's hard not to think of the warning offered by Springsteen at the end of the song that inspired the movie: "A man turns his back on his family, he ain't no friend of mine." Like those mythical native predecessors, Frank may attain the swiftness of the deer, but the message he brings stands in stark contrast to that of his brother -- that of despair and death versus life and hope.

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