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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Runner’: Penn Bows as Writer-Director

TIMES FILM CRITIC

It is not Sean Penn’s way to be self-effacing. On the screen, on the set, even out on the street while married to Madonna, he took everything personally, putting his combative stamp on every unmarked surface and unclaimed frame of film. Control has always been critical to him, so it’s not surprising that, after 13 films in front of the camera, including telling performances in everything from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to “Casualties of War,” he has turned with a vengeance to the other side.

Being self-involved, however, is a difficult habit to break, and “The Indian Runner,” Penn’s writing and directing debut, is a psychodrama that is so intensely personal it is difficult to read or even experience as nothing more than a not-quite-veiled commentary on his own life. While it is clear from this film that Penn has the ability to direct, it is also obvious that he has yet to find something of general interest to do with his talent.

Based loosely on “Highway Patrolman,” a brooding song from Bruce Springsteen’s self-consciously morose “Nebraska” album, “Indian Runner” (AMC Century 14) is a Vietnam-era parable of two Midwestern brothers dealing in their own ways with the collapse of their family.

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Joe is Mr. Clean, a decent, friendly, responsible type, the happily married father of a young son who just happens to be the local sheriff. Brother Frank is, by inevitable contrast, the local hell-raiser. Just back from Vietnam, with more tattoos than common sense, he blows into town the picture of reptilian evil.

While David Morse is effective if unexciting as Joe, Viggo Mortensen, who looks like a satanic Sam Shepherd, makes the most of his born-to-be-bad opportunities, throwing himself with commendable vigor into what will be a career-making role. As a writer-director, one of Penn’s strengths is the ability to create a coherent world, visually and psychologically, for these characters to interact in. His Midwest in winter is a grim place, bleaker than bleak, where nobody even thinks of having a nice day and the barbed wire is no less barbed for being covered with snow.

And though he occasionally exhibits the weakness, shared by almost all beginners, for overly arty shots, Penn is surprisingly focused as a director, successfully creating an atmosphere of somber claustrophobia and impending menace. Even the film’s awkward symbolism can’t break the mood.

But because he still thinks like an actor, Penn has not deemed it necessary to write a fully fashioned script to go with the atmosphere. There is very little narrative drive in “Indian Runner” (rated R for violence, language and some drug use), just the constant jockeying for position and moral superiority between the brothers. There is also very little satisfying dialogue.

Clearly influenced by John Cassavetes, whom he partially dedicates the film to, Penn is much enamored of “actor’s moments,” counting on his stars to flesh out with improvisational bursts what he has neglected to write. It’s a stratagem that invariably leads to lack of pace within scenes and to performances that tend toward posturing and self-indulgence.

Though he has been quoted as saying, “the thing that interests me now is the idea of compassion,” Penn’s heart is clearly with the bad boys who take no prisoners and leave compassion for the puny and feeble. What with casting Charles Bronson and Dennis Hopper in supporting roles and using novelist Harry Crews (very effectively), in a cameo, Penn has turned his film into a veritable Bad Boys Convention, one where women’s parts are given the shortest of shrift and decent folks of both sexes are portrayed with condescension that borders on contempt.

More to the point, though Penn is no doubt thinking he has given good brother Joe equal time, if not more so, he is so transparently in love with Mortensen’s Frank, so lavish with loving shots of his tattooed body and arrogant face, that he short-circuits the conflict between the two men, the only source of dramatic interest the film has, almost before it’s begun.

Given that, the only interest “Indian Runner” ultimately has is the curious one as Sean Penn’s apologia for his past life, his desire to tell the whole world he’s been, you guessed it, misjudged. “I may be bad, but I’m not evil,” he in essence says through Frank, his convenient alter ego.

As might be expected, Penn’s idea of compassion turns out to be a strictly personal one. And while his self-involvement is clearly no great barrier to his technical ability as a director, it is hell on what he has to say.

‘The Indian Runner’

David Morse: Joe

Viggo Mortensen: Frank

Valeria Golino: Maria

Patricia Arquette: Dorothy

Charles Bronson: Father

Sandy Dennis: Mother

Dennis Hopper: Caesar

The Mount Film Group in association with Mico/NHK Enterprises production, released by MGM/UA. Director Sean Penn. Producer Don Phillips. Executive producers Thom Mount, Stephen K. Bannon, Mark Bisgeier. Co-producer Patricia Morrison. Screenplay by Sean Penn. Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond. Editor Jay Cassidy. Costumes Jill Ohanneson. Music Jack Nitzsche. Production design Michael Haller. Art director Bill Groom. Set decorator Derek Hill. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (violence, language, and some drug use).


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