Joe Roberts, David Morse's character in Sean Penn's 1991 film The Indian Runner, is not the type of man you see in films too often. Joe works hard, loves his family, and takes care of his parents. He doesn't have any secret vices or personal demons—there's nothing about his life that you think would create sufficient conflict for a film.
His brother, Frankie Roberts, is another story. He's a quick-tempered Vietnam vet, restless and usually on the wrong side of the law. Frankie is played by Viggo Mortensen, in one of his first starring roles and first opportunities to display his ability to imbue a sometimes unpleasant character with charm and sympathy.
The Indian Runner was written and directed by Sean Penn, who does not perform in the film. The story was inspired by Bruce Springsteen's song "Highway Patrolman," a track that provides the skeleton for the film's plot and is one of the best songs off of his sparse, acoustic 1982 album Nebraska. The song sets up Joe and Frankie as the yin and yang of brotherhood: Frankie causes trouble, Joe helps him out. Frankie dismisses the responsibilities in his life, and older brother Joe is there to pick up the pieces.
When the film begins, Frankie has just returned home from Vietnam, eager to see his brother but unable to settle back into his Nebraska community. For years, Frankie has been the absent limb of the family—if not lost to war he's been lost to wandering. Joe and his family speak often of Frankie, and feel his absence so keenly, yet when Joe and Frankie finally reunite after years apart Joe acknowledges "that person . . . was a stranger to me." After Frankie leaves again on another tear into the unknown, Joe realizes that he doesn't miss the man that Frankie has become, but the brother the Frankie used to be when they were young.
The film takes place in the early 1970s, but does so gently—it doesn't beat you over the head with too many period songs or hairstyles. The Roberts's brothers' story is not one of the damage caused by the war in Vietnam. Joe's father (a beautiful, understated performance by Charles Bronson, in his last non-Death Wish role), seeking to give his younger son Frankie an out, reasons, "They say a lot of boys coming back are coming back real confused . . ." but Joe counters with, "Yeah, well Frank left confused."
Frankie is just one of those guys, always causing trouble and charming his way out of it. He's a rebel in the James Dean/Marlon Brando mold, but as the film goes along you realize that it's Joe, and his ability to take responsibility for his life and enjoy his daily reality without delusion, that's really the man one would want to idolize and emulate. Joe is an inherently good person without being sanctimonious about it—he sincerely loves his wife Maria (played by Valeria Golino), his son, his town—and even though he lost his farm to the bank years ago he doesn't let that sad experience embitter his days or prevent him from moving towards a better future.
The death of their parents draws the Roberts brothers back together. Joe tracks down Frankie to a flophouse in Columbus, fresh from a brief stint in jail. Frankie is now with a sweet, naive, and kooky pixie girl, Dorothy (Patricia Arquette). Dorothy is the perfect mate for Frankie—she accepts his moods and his outbursts without judgment and loves him for who he is. Dorothy is pregnant and Frankie attempts to settle down, returning with Joe to their hometown and moving into their father's house. Frankie gets a job and marries Dorothy. But Frankie has something in him that won't allow him to sit still; whenever he feels pinned down he lashes out with violence. He starts tearing away at the life he's built for himself, with disastrous consequences.
The Indian Runner rings true because it never gives an explanation for Frankie's behavior, and never condones or condemns him. Like folks we've all met in life, some people just are a certain way and this film tells the story of such a man and everyone around him who's effected by his aimless fury. Both brothers agree that the world is stacked against them, but they deal with that knowledge in very different ways. Coming from the same household, Joe can't understand Frankie's attitudes: "You're the angriest man I know. I want to know why you hurt people!"
Frankie cuts a romantic figure at first but to get through his life he has to decide whether to embrace his family or his hatred and, as Springsteen sings, "a man who turns his back on his family just ain't no good." But whatever happens, Joe is the stronger man because he's already accepted his life as a good one, and knows that every day is a beautiful thing.
The Indian Runner is out of print on home video but is available on DVD used from online sellers and streaming via Vudu