Sean Penn brings the same visceral intensity and raw emotionalism to his filmmaking as he does to his acting. His directorial efforts, The Indian Runner (1991) and The Crossing Guard (1995), both honorable failures, have a brooding, claustrophobic ambience that aims at getting deep inside his anguished characters. As director, Penn displays the boldness evident in his acting, taking risks with difficult material, but he seems to mistake pain and intensity with art and truth. His movies are not poor, but they are derivative, based more on amalgams of attitudes than fully developed narratives. At their best, they represent a troubling exploration of American manhood, rendered in stark yet lyrical tones; at worst, they are pompous and lugubrious efforts.
It's no surprise that as a director Penn is most impressive in his work with actors, and that his films focus tenaciously on performance. In both pictures, high-caliber casts generate charged tension. The downside is that like other actors-turned-directors, Penn holds the camera on his actors far too long, as if waiting for something miraculous or extraordinary to happen, which seldom does.
Indian Runner was inspired by Bruce Springsteen's popular ballad, “Highway Patrolman.” Extending a 5-minute-song to a 2 hours and 5 minute film, Penn tells a biblical allegory about the bond between two brothers, Joe (David Morse) and Frankie (Vigo Mortensen). “I got a brother named Frankie,” says Joe in the ballad, “and Frankie ain't no good.” Nominally, the story probes the psyche of a wounded, incorrigible loser, Frankie, but it's also about troubled relationships between father and sons. Quiet and upright, Joe is a cop struggling to reconcile his professional duty with the personal responsibility he feels for Frankie, a violently unpredictable Vietnam vet. Joe radiates both kindness and repressed yearning in his interactions with Frankie and with his loving wife, Maria (Valeria Golina).
In ambition, though not in execution, Penn goes for Cassavetes' ragged emotional intensity, attempting to construct a painful family portrait. Some scenes, like one in which the brothers talk in a bar, recall the way Cassavetes used to throw his actors into unscripted situations.
However, the loose, rambling Indian Runner has only a few moments of substance, and many more of excess and self-indulgence. Penn's dialogue is stilted and simplistic, as when the father says: “he's a very restless boy, that Frankie. That's what got him into trouble, you know.” Or when Joe observes: “There are two kinds of men, the strong and the weak.”
Moody and volatile, Frankie is capable of both ferociously scary outbursts and eerie calm. Joe observes with fascination his brother's frightening conduct as he alternates viciousness and sweetness towards his child-like girlfriend, Dorothy (Patricia Arquette). With a baby-faced innocence, the blonde Dorothy is a visual counterpoint to the darkly menacing Frankie.
The glum, earnest film starts off with a killing and sustains a threat of violence throughout, even in its gentler episodes. There are montages that don't connect, as, for example, a graphic childbirth sequence. The title figure, from a Plains Indian legend, commingling the hunter with his prey, runs through the film in whiteface. And a man whose son has been killed bursts into an angry, defiant chorus of “John Henry”. These touches make the film more haughty than heartfelt or soulful.