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The Indian Runner Reviews

Stranded somewhere between exuberantly bad and merely boring, THE INDIAN RUNNER is a bloated resume film hobbled by a script as slight as the Bruce Springsteen song upon which it's based. Set in rural Ohio during the 60s, the film follows the fates of two brothers, one a failed farmer who's become a cop and the other a plain failure, a violent black sheep who returns home from military duty in Vietnam to wreak havoc and heartbreak on his family. From the opening moments, Joe Roberts (David Morse) is wracked by guilt, having just killed a redneck in a gun battle on a snow-covered country road. Brother Frank (Viggo Mortensen) shows up, still in uniform, just long enough to cruise in Joe's police car and hitch a ride on the next freight train out of town without visiting their long-suffering parents (Charles Bronson and the late Sandy Dennis in her final screen appearance). The next we hear of Frank he's in jail for beating up his ditzy hick girlfriend Dorothy (Patricia Arquette). Joe meets Frank when he's released and offers him shelter at the home he shares with his Mexican wife Maria (Valeria Golino) and their infant son. After some hesitation, Frank and now-pregnant Dorothy are romping through the Joe-and-Maria household and, for a while, life looks peachy indeed. Joe and Frank seem to be getting along. Frank marries Dorothy and gets a contruction job. But it all proves to be just an extended prelude to Frank's climactic flip-out. He spits chewed-up peas into Dorothy's face and leaves bartender Caesar's (Dennis Hopper) brains spattered all over a barroom floor on his way out of town, just as Dorothy is going into labor. Joe chases Frank but lets him go, even though Frank screeches his car to a halt at the edge of town after he hallucinates seeing an Indian running out in front of his car. Other than the vague feeling that having David Morse on the police force is hazardous to public safety, it's difficult to fathom what to make of actor Sean Penn's directorial debut, a muddled melodrama that is very well photographed but rarely makes much sense on a dramatic or narrative level. Morse, famed for his performance as Dr. Jack Morrison, that knotted-up ball of stoic masochism, on the defunct TV series "St. Elsewhere," essays a similar character here as Joe, the good brother, who winces nobly while trying vainly to reform bad brother Frank. The mawkish bonding scenes between Morse and Mortensen are incoherent in the mock-Sam Shepard manner, making the duo sound like nothing so much as a pair of tortured New York method actors doing soul-baring exercises. The other characters suffer from even sketchier development as well as some bizarre miscasting. Himself a coal miner's son, Charles Bronson looks most at home in the small-town working-class milieu of the film. But, as a performer, he remains as wooden as ever. And how did he ever wind up married to Sandy Dennis? Only a little less strange is Italian beauty Golino showing up in deepest, darkest Ohio as a Mexican woman. In her case the incongruity is somewhat overcome by a strong performance. Arquette is also engaging and credibly cast as Dorothy, pointing towards Penn's possible effectiveness in directing women. On the whole, however, the best moments in THE INDIAN RUNNER are in the padding rather than in the main plot, from the eerie opening car chase to odd, off-the-cuff moments like an encounter with a bearded lady in a stairwell and an extended sequence involving a cranky old woman nagging Joe while he's trying to wash his patrol car. Stylistically, Penn exhibits a fondness, if not an obsession, for queasy, extreme close-ups of bad food on dirty plates and whiskey being poured into greasy glasses, culminating in Dorothy's full-frontal, in-your-face childbirth (a sequence none too subtly intercut with Frank's brain-bashing of Caesar). Penn does show potential of developing, with some practice and discipline, into something like a more sensitive version of Michael Cimino--though some may feel that one Michael Cimino in the world is more than enough. (Violence, profanity, adult situations, nudity.)