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The Dark History of The Indian Runner, Sean Penn’s Meditation on American Violence, By Way of Bruce Springsteen

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The Indian Runner is a movie of profound ambition. It seeks to dramatize nothing less than the history of violence within the United States, and how that violence infects spirit after spirit, like a powerful and contagious disease. It is also the screenwriting and directorial debut of one of the world’s greatest actors, Sean Penn. The two-time Academy Award winning actor would go on to direct four more films, and at one point openly discuss the possibility of retiring from acting to become a full-time filmmaker. The Indian Runner demonstrates why Penn’s cinematic style is important and under-appreciated.

In 1982, Sean Penn began dating photographer Pamela Springsteen, legendary songwriter Bruce Springsteen’s sister. When Springsteen released his dark and brooding acoustic masterpiece of story-songs, “Nebraska,” Penn became obsessed with the track, “Highway Patrolman.” The song opens with the singer identifying himself as Joe Roberts, a Michigan police officer who started working for the state after losing his farm. He is married to a Mexican immigrant, Maria, and “always does an honest job.” As Springsteen sings in a tender and intimate voice, we learn that the greatest source of pain and frustration in Joe’s life is his brother, Frank. “Franky ain’t no good,” Joe laments before confessing that throughout his entire life he has helped his brother clear the wreckage of his own sins, while also ensuring that he escapes any consequences. It is easy to imagine that there are also feelings of guilt operating in accordance with Joe’s loyalty. The United States government drafted Frank into the Vietnam War, but gave Joe a “farm deferment.”

“Highway Patrolman,” which Johnny Cash would later cover, ends with Frank nearly killing a man in a bar. Joe chases him down the highways and backroads of Michigan until he sees a sign that says, “Canadian Border 100 Miles.” He then pulls his squad car over to shoulder, watching Frank’s “taillights disappear,” the last he will ever see of his beloved brother. Springsteen repeats the chorus:

Me and Franky laughin’ and drinkin’
Nothin’ feels better than blood on blood
Takin’ turns dancin’ with Maria as the band played “Night of the Johnstown Flood”
I catch him when he’s strays like any brother would
Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good

“Highway Patrolman” is one of Springsteen’s most heartfelt and brilliant songs. A particularly moving and beautiful version appears on the “Live in Dublin” record that he released with accompaniment of The Sessions Band—a massive modern folk unit, complete with strings, horns, and backup singers.

Sean Penn tells biographer, Richard T. Kelly, in the outstanding oral history of Penn’s film career, Sean Penn: His Life and Times, that one night, while visibly and audibly drunk, he told Springsteen, “I’m going to make a movie out of ‘Highway Patrolman.’”

The rock and roll star, who already didn’t much care for the cocky actor dating his sister, reacted with a combination of amusement and condescension—laughing and remarking, “Ok, Sean.” In 1991, less than ten years after the intoxicated exchange, The Indian Runner opened nationally in movie theaters. The opening credits announce, “Inspired by the Bruce Springsteen song, ‘Highway Patrolman.’” Those words act as Springsteen’s endorsement. Part of the contractual agreement gave Springsteen the right to refuse to have his name associated with the film. After a private screening, he thanked Penn for giving a profound and deeply moving presentation of his song. Many years after the release of The Indian Runner, Bruce Springsteen’s record company would release a music video for “Highway Patrolman” featuring footage from Penn’s film.

Beyond praise and gratitude, Springsteen also reportedly asked Penn to explain the source of Frank’s anger. In The Indian Runner, Viggo Mortenson gives a brilliant portrayal of Frank who, far beyond a common criminal, is a borderline psychopath drawing pleasure from frightening and inflicting pain on his unsuspecting targets of rage. According to Kelly’s biography, Penn explained to Springsteen that the only necessary answer derives from the title track of the album on which “Highway Patrolman” appears: Nebraska. That particular song tells the story of Charles Starkweather, a spree killer who murdered eleven people on a road trip from the eponymous state to Wyoming. To close the song, Springsteen invents an exchange between Starkweather and an unnamed agent of the legal system. In response to the question, “Why did you do it?”, Starkweather gives the chilling response: “There’s just a meanness in this world.”

Frank, according to Penn’s creation and Mortenson’s delivery, is simultaneously a victim and executioner. Writing home from the Vietnam War, he complains about his fellow soldiers who regret their participation in the killing of civilians: “They expect their hair to stay dry in the rain.” In a scene that takes place late in the movie, moments before Frank commits the murder that sends him toward the Canadian border, he condemns the greed and cruelty of the country and state that would forcibly take his brother’s farmland. The “meanness” acquires historical specificity with the title of the film, and the recurring image of a mysterious Native American whose gaze makes Frank squirm in his seat.


As Penn told Kelly, “I stumbled on a book by Peter Nabokov, a Berkeley anthropology professor, nephew of Vladimir. It was a chronicle of Native American running, its history in that culture. I spent some time with Nabokov, drew some inspiration from him, and put it into the movie.” Penn went to explain that in addition to the ephemeral meanness that Springsteen identified as motivation for violent crime, he also wanted to explore “ancestral sins, the criminal past of the settlers in the United States. It inhabits some part of our subconscious, because it got passed on by our fathers, and their fathers, and those before. I viewed that as a sort of shared disease in the culture, and—it’s a leap—but I wanted to see if that had anything to do, if not literally then politically, with the damaged spirit of people like Frank.”

Indian Running: Native American History and Tradition is out of print, and difficult to find, but publicly accessible reviews make it clear that Nabokov was interested in locating the importance of running in indigenous culture as somewhere between physical and spiritual. Not only did several Native revolts begin with “running messengers” bringing news of invasion, but many tribes had the belief that, through an intense and aimless run of endurance, it was possible to commune with mystical forces in the universe.

In Sean Penn’s film, the Indian runner flashes across the screen at key moments, most especially when Frank decides to pull his car over to the shoulder of the road in the film’s final scene. We also see the Indian runner before Frank and Joe’s father, excellently played by an un-mustachioed Charles Brosnan, commits suicide, which happens at the same moment that Joe is watching footage from the Vietnam War on television. The runner operates as a presence of mystic doom, leaving behind the violence that once robbed his people of their land, culture, and lives.

Given his volatility and Viggo Mortenson’s darkly charismatic performance, it is easy to focus on Frank when watching the film, but Joe Roberts, and the quietly tender and moving portrayal from David Morse, acts as the actual anchor of the story. There is a similar dynamic at play with their wives. Patricia Arquette offers such a fine performance as Frank’s wife that there are scenes when looking at her feels like getting punched in the gut. She communicates a wild, bighearted innocence that, everyone knows, Frank will eventually destroy. Valeria Golina plays Maria, Frank’s wife, and she offers a different version of marriage and companionship. She immediately identifies Frank as a threat, and spends her days teaching English to Latino immigrants—acquainted with the darkness of the American experience, but still eager to help others assimilate into the “land of the free and home of the brave.” She maintains belief—a property that is at the movie’s heart.

The film opens with Joe in a highway chase with a psychotic criminal. Seeing that he cannot outrun Joe, the criminal pulls over, and draws his gun. Before he can open fire, Joe puts him away with a single blast. “I tried to tell myself that I did my job,” Joe reflects in his narration of the film, “That it was self-defense. I didn’t believe me.”

Joe realizes that a certain quantity of violence lives within him, but perhaps, he is better adept at controlling it than Frank. He has found reason to live beyond resentment and hostility toward the “meanness in the world.” Before Frank commits murder, he describes that meanness, and then asks Joe to “open his eyes.” “My eyes are open,” Joe answers, “And I love looking at my wife and baby every day. I love looking at my home.”

The love within Frank cannot survive the meanness. Penn makes clever allusion to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” by having the rhythmic pounding of the construction equipment where Frank works constantly drown out his thoughts. The thump is even there when Frank’s baby is born—a scene that shows an actual birth. Penn managed to convince a couple in Nebraska—where the film was shot—to allow the recording of the birth of their child.

In a life imitates art connection, Sean Penn’s first child was born during the filming of The Indian Runner. The timing was nothing more than a coincidence, but David Morse found it emblematic of why Penn was attracted to the “Highway Patrolman.” He explained to Richard Kelly that he believed there were parts of Joe and Frank within Sean Penn himself—a duality that might explain why the screen legend is famous for both his humanitarian leadership and vicious temper.

The flaw in The Indian Runner is that Penn never gives the audience a moment to understand Joe’s affection from Frank. Springsteen sings of “Laughing and drinking…taking turns dancing with Maria.” A visualization of that line might have demonstrated that Frank too possesses a duality. Instead, the film shows only his cruelty and psychosis.

The Indian Runner does make creative and emotive use out of the closing line of Springsteen’s chorus: “A man turns his back on his family, well, he just ain’t no good.”

In the song, and most of the movie, the line functions as Joe’s justification for always coming to Frank’s rescue. The brotherly bond outweighs all ethical and practical considerations. At the film’s conclusion, Joe targets his own brother with the excoriation. They stand on the shoulder of the road. Frank steps out of the car, and Joe doesn’t see Frank the adult, but in a heartbreaking moment, he sees Frank as a child. The sight of Frank as a boy freezes Joe, and allows him to perform one final act of charity for his troubled sibling. As Frank gets back into the vehicle and drives toward Canada, Joe remarks on how he knows he will never see Frank again.

“He turned his back on his family,” Joe realizes.

What most makes The Indian Runner interesting is that, for all of its avant garde technique and decidedly uncommercial pacing, it is a traditional morality tale. It juxtaposes Joe’s old fashioned moral values with Frank’s nihilism.

Maybe Morse is right that Frank and Joe live inside the spirit of Sean Penn, and maybe Penn is right that all of America wrestles with a dangerous form of nihilism that first originated when the settlers forcibly stole the land of the continent’s Native people, but each person still has to choose whether or not to believe in something good, and to act on that belief. Joe chooses to have faith, and as a result, The Indian Runner is more hopeful than Springsteen’s record, Nebraska. The closing song, “Reason to Believe,” is a cynical mockery of people who maintain hope as the world collapses around them.

The Indian Runner ends with Joe telling the audience that, after watching Frank escape, he went home to his family, hugged his child, and kissed his wife. The film is not cynical—nor is it naïve. It is a realistic celebration of the power and possibility of love to survive even the worst acts of violence.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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