Method Actor Makes Method Directing Debut



Afraid of sounding snide above, this reviewer avoided using the French-derived term “acteur” to describe an acting style that draws heavily on a dramatic performer’s inner resources, in effect allowing the actor to “become” the character he or she is playing. Method acting has itself become fairly synonymous with the many laudable aspects and occasional excesses of the profession, craft, art, whathaveyou of dramatic performing, both on stage and on screen, and so the verbal collision of ‘acting’ with ‘auteur’ seems an accurate descriptor of its practitioners, summing up the good with the bad. The career of Sean Penn contains both, and as an acting auteur brought those considerable gifts and excess baggage to bear on his first film as director.

Dedicated in part to actor-director John Cassavetes and inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s song “Highway Patrolman”, from the singer-songwriter’s 1982 album Nebraska, Sean Penn’s 1991 writing and directing debut The Indian Runner details the difficult relationship between brothers Joe (David Morse), a one-time farmer turned deputy sheriff, and Frank Roberts (Viggo Mortensen), a war veteran dealing with several loose ends, both personally and psychologically, upon his return from Vietnam. Set in late 1960s rural Nebraska, per the story content of the Springsteen song, the smalltown Midwestern backdrop foregrounds the personality differences between the brothers in dealing with family, responsibility, and the general emotional demands of life. One the dreamer and the other the doer, hearkening to a time-tested formula familiar to movie audiences since the early days of Warner Brothers crime movies – and reaching further back to fairy tales and folk legends detailing the respective plights of good brothers versus bad – the film title evokes the mythical aspects of Native American lore as applied to the character solidity of the latter and the intrinsic restlessness of the former.

At over two hours, The Indian Runner is essentially a drawn-out character and mood piece, with an impressive array of established and indeed legendary actors, along with then newcomers, creating a realistic, lived-in atmosphere that reveals through alternating scenes of affection and conflict, tenderness and violence – in equal measure – the divided loyalties between family members. Bookended by chase sequences, beginning the film with a shoot-out and ending with an anticlimactic escape; a death, a suicide, a bloody brawl, and a horrifying act of violence, respectively, erupt unexpectedly from a seemingly innocent chain of events. Short on story but long on character development, The Indian Runner undoubtedly pays strong dividends on the film’s surface remoteness by suggesting history between characters largely left unspoken; rising instead out of what is suggested through the emotional content of the performances. With Valeria Golino as Joe’s Hispanic wife, and a very young Patricia Arquette as Frank’s impulsive girlfriend, the brothers’ interactions with their significant others equally suggest the stability of the former and the lack of commitment from the latter, while Sandy Dennis and Charles Bronson make vivid impressions as the brothers’ parents by their very emotional distance.

As a film, then, the method-y approach may occasionally frustrate a viewer’s patience, but undoubtedly rewards careful attention with the raw intensity and direct honesty of the characterizations. Operating under the assumption that film is an actor’s medium, Sean Penn’s personal stamp arises from a rehearsal and improvisatory tone reminiscent of film-dedicated John Cassavetes, but nonetheless makes it a style all his own, particularly in the keenly-felt affinity and wire-taut tension continually apparent between actors David Morse and Viggo Mortensen. Referencing Warner Brothers melodramas again, it may not be obvious beyond the demands of the story in, say, 1940’s City for Conquest that James Cagney and Arthur Kennedy are brothers, beyond the pair being studio-obligated to appear so, but the simultaneous love and hatred crackling in every scene The Indian Runner‘s Joe and Frank share is readily evident, even transparent, to anyone who has a sibling, or knows someone who does. It’s the sort of difficult, conflicted yet intensely devoted relationship that films rarely get right, but which The Indian Runner overwhelmingly does.

Kino Lorber’s continuing and commendable Blu-ray releases of off-the-beaten path fare continues to present off-the-beaten path fare commendably. And, again, overwhelmingly so. The slow-motion burning of a luxury car and blood dripping off a whiskey-soaked bar are two among many visually sensual moments that receive Scorsese-like impact from the disc’s high-def presentation. The disc also comes with an illuminating half-hour documentary interview with director Sean Penn and stars Viggo Mortensen and David Morse on the making of the film. Among its revelations and ruminations, Mortensen reports that a scene between himself, Morse, Sandy Dennis, and Charles Bronson was shot but didn’t make the film’s final cut, in which his wild-eyed character disrupts a homecoming party given in his honor by essentially throwing an emotional firebomb into the center of the proceedings. Whatever the reason the scene was taken out, the slow-burn of a family’s implosion is nevertheless still felt even as the self-appointed Indian Runner continues his endless journey to destinations unknown, carrying messages yet unread.

The images in this review are used only as a reference to the film and do not reflect the picture quality of the Blu-ray release.