In his debut as a writer-director, Sean Penn shows a sure hand with actors and a knack for setting up a scene visually and dramatically. But he’s a bust at following through. Dedicating his movie to the late directors John Cassavetes and Hal Ashby, Penn emulates the emotional intensity of their films without locating a distinct style of his own. He’s trying hard, too hard, for seriousness. There’s no pacing, variety or humor in this unrelentingly somber film.
The movie begins with a scene in which an Indian brave chases a deer until it dies. The brave believes he can absorb the deer’s spirit by inhaling its last breath. Since the movie isn’t about Indians — it concerns two brothers in Nebraska, in the Sixties — we’ve got problems. Worse, we’ve got allegories, culled from the Bible (Cain and Abel) and even Bruce Spring-steen (his song “Highway Patrolman” tells of a cop named Joe, with a brother Franky who “ain’t no good”).
David Morse — best known for TV’s St. Elsewhere — plays Joe Roberts, the good cop and family man. Joe can’t temper the rage of his brother Frank (Viggo Mortensen), who has just returned from Vietnam. Penn doesn’t act in the film, but he clearly connects deeply with both brothers. You get the unnerving feeling that they represent his own battle to reconcile his brawling side with his responsible one. Sandy Dennis and Charles Bronson make brief but compelling appearances as Joe and Frank’s parents, as do Valeria Golino and Patricia Arquette, as their respective wives, and Dennis Hopper as a slime-ball bartender who unwittingly sends Frank on a rampage.
Still, it’s the brothers who hold the screen. Mortensen, working in hot colors, and Morse, working in gray, deliver sensational performances. What a shame that Penn lets his script slip into stuporous clichÃƒ?Ã‚Â©s and his direction mistake self-indulgence for art. Penn isn’t the first rookie filmmaker to trip on his own ego. But the failure of The Indian Runner doesn’t mask his talent. Maybe next time.