Skip to main content

Bruce Springsteen’s Netflix special makes this a great weekend for The Indian Runner

Bruce Springsteen’s Netflix special makes this a great weekend for The Indian Runner


Sean Penn’s 1991 film derived from a Springsteen song is currently free online

Share this story

Photo by Kevin Mazur / Netflix

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

The Indian Runner, Sean Penn’s 1991 debut as a writer and director. Based on the 1982 Bruce Springsteen song “Highway Patrolman,” the movie stars David Morse as Joe Roberts, a deputy sheriff living a quiet life with his wife Maria (Valeria Golino) in a late-1960s Midwestern small town. Joe’s career and family are disrupted by the return of his brother Frank (Viggo Mortensen), a Vietnam vet with a mean streak. Though The Indian Runner follows the plot of “Highway Patrolman” — ultimately dealing with the choices Joe has to make about how to handle Frank’s law-breaking — the movie more generally re-creates the whole feel of Springsteen’s stripped-down, lo-fi 1982 album Nebraska, which is full of songs about desperate characters, straining under the weight of their obligations.

Why watch now?

Because Springsteen on Broadway debuts on Netflix on Saturday, December 15th.

Based on Bruce Springsteen’s revealing 2016 autobiography Born to Run, the live one-man show Springsteen on Broadway opened in October 2017 at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York as a limited engagement, which kept getting extended due to high demand. Springsteen’s final Broadway performance is set for this weekend, and to mark the occasion, Netflix is premiering a recording of the show, shot in front of a private audience back in July. Springsteen fans who live far away or who couldn’t afford tickets will now be able to enjoy the Tony-winning production, which mixes acoustic versions of classics like “My Hometown” and “The Rising” with frank anecdotes about the singer-songwriter’s tumultuous youth and about his lifelong search for happiness and meaning through music.

Springsteen on Broadway is the jukebox musical reimagined as a solo performance, where the songs tell the story of their creator’s life. It’s a testament to Springsteen’s fussiness about his legacy that rather than letting someone else make a musical from his work — something he’s been offered — he did it himself and controlled the narrative.

Photo: Netflix

That kind of caution about how and where his music is used has extended to cinema. Springsteen’s older songs rarely show up in films. Instead, he tends to work closely with directors he admires, providing them with new material: “Streets of Philadelphia,” “Dead Man Walking,” “The Wrestler,” and so on. Sometimes, those projects paid particular dividends: in 1981, Paul Schrader asked for a song for a script he’d written called Born in the U.S.A., which was about a bar band. The project stalled, and Springsteen instead recorded the number and put it on what became his hit album of the same name. He later repaid his debt to Schrader by writing the title song for Light of Day, the revived 1987 version of the film, starring Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett.

Given all that, it means something that Springsteen thought highly enough of Penn’s vision — even as a first-time filmmaker — to grant him permission to use the “Highway Patrolman” characters and story. The song doesn’t have much of a plot. It’s mostly a first-person slice of life, with just a little bit of backstory and a haunting ending. But Penn keeps the pertinent details, including a tidbit about how Joe Roberts once tried being a farmer before the wheat market collapsed. The Indian Runner gets the larger meaning of what Springsteen is singing about: the notion that the bad breaks of the economy and genealogy can saddle a good person with what the Nebraska song “Atlantic City” calls “debts no honest man can pay.”

Valeria Golino in The Indian Runner.
Valeria Golino in The Indian Runner.
Photo by Kino Lorber

Who it’s for

Fans of early-1990s American arthouse cinema and fans of “the Boss.”

The Indian Runner’s cast represents the past and future of movies, with veterans Charles Bronson, Dennis Hopper, and Sandy Dennis (in her final film) appearing alongside emerging stars Mortensen, Golino, Patricia Arquette, and Benicio del Toro. In the lead role, the then-37-year-old Morse was still better-known at the time for his long stint on the TV series St. Elsewhere then for the run of memorable big-screen character roles that lay ahead of him in movies including Contact, Dancer in the Dark, and The Green Mile. As for Penn, he was taking advantage of a fertile period for American cinema, when studios and independent producers were willing to spend a little money on more artful, sophisticated dramas, figuring that fostering relationships with young directors like the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and Penn would pay off in the long run.

Penn picked a good “starter story” in “Highway Patrolman,” too: a character-driven piece with lots of opportunities for actors to have quietly reflective conversations about their dreams and woes. Many of Springsteen’s songs are at least partially inspired by movies, from obvious ones like “Thunder Road” and “Nebraska” (the latter nodding to Terrence Malick’s Badlands) to the many tracks on Born to Run that tap into the outlaw energy of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. With The Indian Runner, Penn takes back what “the Boss” borrowed, making a movie as lived-in and emotionally resonant as the best Springsteen records.

Where to see it

Vudu (for free, but with ads). For more Springsteen, Qello subscribers have a plethora of options, including outstanding full concerts from 1975, 1992, 2000, 2002, 2006, and 2009, plus the very good documentaries Wings for Wheels and The Promise, which cover the making of the 1975 album Born to Run and the 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town respectively. (Like Springsteen on Broadway, both those films were directed by Thom Zimny.)