The Indian Runner

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The Indian Runner
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Sean Penn
Produced by Don Phillips
Written by Sean Penn
Starring David Morse
Viggo Mortensen
Valeria Golino
Patricia Arquette
Jordan Rhodes
Dennis Hopper
Music by Jack Nitzsche
David Lindley
Cinematography Anthony B. Richmond
Edited by Jay Cassidy
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • September 20, 1991 (1991-09-20)
Running time
127 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $7 million
Box office $191,125[1]

The Indian Runner is a 1991 crime drama film written and directed by Sean Penn. It is based on Bruce Springsteen's song, "Highway Patrolman".


The story, set in 1960s Nebraska, involves two very different brothers: small-town deputy sheriff Joe and criminal Frank Roberts.

Before the events of the film, Joe had tried to farm for a living, but was unable to make ends meet, and the bank eventually foreclosed on his property. He became a deputy sheriff as a way to support his young wife, Maria, and child. Joe is a good, conscientious man, but has his own demons to fight with. The opening shot of the film shows a car chase which ends with Joe using his gun to kill a man in self-defense. This results in Joe's conflicted feelings about killing the criminal, as well as the praise and scorn from members of his community from this shooting. Frank, who had been involved with run-ins with the law before going to Vietnam, is described by his father as plagued by "restlessness". Upon his return to town, he breaks into his brother's home and is nearly shot by Joe's wife. The next day, Frank leaves town without ever stopping by his parents' home. As Joe states in the narration, Frank was correct in his assessment that his parents would understand, as they always seem to when he hurts those who love him.

Joe does not hear from his brother for some time, but eventually discovers that he is in jail in another state from their father, who had kept the information quiet to avoid upsetting their mother. Their mother dies and their father commits suicide soon after. Frank is then released from prison and returns to his hometown with his pregnant girlfriend, Dorothy. He tries to settle down and works in construction, but keeps getting into trouble with the law, which puts him in conflict with Joe. When the time comes for Frank's wife to give birth, Frank is in a bar "drinking it down," which sparks a confrontation with Joe. After Joe leaves, Frank beats the bartender to death with a chair and drives out of town with Joe on his tail. The film concludes with Joe allowing Frank to escape across the state line.



The film was shot partially in Plattsmouth, Nebraska and Omaha, Nebraska. Joe wears the uniform of a Cass County Sheriff's Deputy in the film.

Producer Don Phillips gave Penn's screenplay to two producers, who liked it but felt that the ending was not commercial enough to interest a Hollywood studio.[2] Phillips' friend Thom Mount, who had his own production company and was a big fan of Penn's work, thought that they might interest a studio if they could get a movie star like Tom Cruise interested in appearing in the film. Penn spotted Mortensen in the film Fresh Horses and was drawn to the actor's "angularity, a severity to his handsomeness", that he thought would be perfect for the role of Frank.[2]

Penn and Phillips sent Mortensen the script while he was making Young Guns II in Tucson, Arizona and flew there to meet with him.[2] The actor agreed to star in Penn's film. Penn had Morse and Mortensen rehearse their pivotal scene in a bar for two weeks. The director had a bar set up in a gymnasium which allowed the actors to blow off steam by shooting baskets in between rehearsals. While making the film, Penn felt that Mortensen's "inherent kindness" was too visible and had him work with a member of the Hells Angels motorcycle club that the director knew in order to acquire an edginess that Penn felt necessary for the character.

The Indian Runner is the last film to feature Sandy Dennis, who died shortly after it was released.[2]

Critical reception

The Indian Runner was, for the most part, positively received. It has a 'fresh' rating of 74% on Rotten Tomatoes.[3] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film a positive review, writing that Joe and Frank represent not only the two sides of manhood in society, but also, possibly, the two sides of Sean Penn's own character.[4]


  1. The Indian Runner at Box Office Mojo
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Kelly, Richard T (2005). "Sean Penn: His Life and Times". Faber and Faber.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "The Indian Runner (1991)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 19, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "The Indian Runner". Chicago Sun-Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links