Joe Roberts has tried to do right by his family, first working hard on a farm that was foreclosed on and then reluctantly picking up the badge of a small Nebraska town sheriff. Now, as his troubled brother Frank returns to town, Roberts is faced with choices about loyalty to family or adhering to the law.
This early 1990s thriller is the work of Sean Penn in his debut as writer and director, putting David Morse (Joe) and Viggo Mortensen (Frank) through their paces. We see Charles Bronson as their father, who absolves Frank of his sins because of his “restlessness,” and Sandy Dennis as their mother, who tells Joe not to concern himself over an on-the-job shooting, recognizing that it was either Joe or the other man who would’ve died that day.
This is the rub of the film, laid out for us, rather directly by the Indian fable to introduce the film, and the haunted look in Morse’s eye as his Joe shoots and kills a violent suspect. Joe is tortured by the killing, even though the audience can see that the suspect’s weapon had been fired over and over at Joe, and that the man showed no signs of stopping. This is Joe’s heart, concerned and troubled by the other impacts that happen when violence is necessary, a reminder that Joe only wished to be a farmer.
So, it’s no surprise that when decorated Army vet and wandering brother Frank rolls into town, that Joe’s response is to cover, even after Frank’s recklessness seems part of the reason for their parents’ death. We can see the strain on Joe, but we recognize that there is a desire to be “my brother’s keeper,” that the taking of life isn’t to be done lately – if ever – as the connections of life are higher than we might expect.
The Indian Runner ends up challenging our sense of self, of life and death, and of family. It could well be an exploration of crime and punishment, but in the end, it seems to default to an expression of life lived, even on the edge.
Special features on the Kino Lorber release include interviews with Penn, Mortensen, and Morse, as well as the original theatrical trailer.