SEAN PENN has grabbed more then his share of headlines in the past few years. While some have trumpeted his accomplishments as an actor, others have chronicled his off-screen career as a young ruckus-raiser with a weakness for grand gestures - from street-brawling and photographer-punching to entering into a turbulent marriage with Madonna, another star with a rough-and-tumble public image.When word arrived that Mr. Penn was launching his first movie as a writer and director, supporters of thoughtful cinema were understandably slow to get enthusiastic about the idea. Who would expect a sustained work of art - or a sustained work of anything - from someone known mainly as Hollywood's premier bad boy of the '80s? As it turns out, Penn may or may not be a bad boy, but he's certainly not a bad filmmaker. "The Indian Runner" is a striking work, exploring a classic theme - the relationship between two brothers - with skill and maturity. It has weak spots, including bits of mystical mumbo jumbo about a legendary "Indian runner" with a ghostly message. But most of the film is articulate and absorbing. The main characters, Joe and Frank, were raised by decent middle-class parents in a Midwestern town. That's about all they have in common, though. Joe grew into an upright citizen - a farmer and then a police officer by trade, a loyal husband and loving father. Frank went in the other direction, possibly spurred by dreadful experiences in Vietnam. He's a drinker and a drifter, so unstable that even friendship seems beyond his capability. Although the brothers have vastly different personalities, they feel connected by their family tie, and by a sense of deep-down affection that has bonded them since childhood. Frank wanders back home early in the story, visiting Joe but steering clear of their parents. He returns when a family crisis occurs, and when his current girlfriend then reveals her pregnancy, he decides to settle down and make a try at respectability. Joe is eager to welcome his prodigal brother into the ranks of normal folks living normal, productive lives. But there's a profoundly troubled streak in Frank's personality, and even the most meager responsibility appears to be more than he can handle. The best efforts of family and friends may not be able to rescue him from his own excesses. This is not a pretty situation, and parts of "The Indian Runner" are harsh and even violent. The film is never sensational, though, and Penn treats its most unsettling aspects tactfully. He also does a superb job of guiding David Morse and Viggo Mortensen in the main performances. An experienced actor himself, he understands how to coax delicate nuances of expression from his colleagues, and how to display them with effectiveness onscreen. He has assembled a strong supporting cast, too, including Dennis Hopper, Sandy Dennis, Valeria Golino, and Patricia Arquette - not to mention Charles Bronson, the former action-movie specialist here playing a gentle dad. Penn has benefited from plenty of expert help in filming "The Indian Runner," to be sure. The picture was photographed and edited by first-rate professionals - Anthony B. Richmond and Jay Cassidy, respectively - and Jack Nitzsche's music adds an important dimension to its atmosphere. Still, the greatest share of credit goes to Penn for orchestrating these contributions, and for writing the sensitive family story that draws them together. "The Indian Runner" announces him as a major filmmaker who could equal or surpass the work of such successful actors-turned-directors as Paul Newman and the gifted Clint Eastwood. It's an extraordinary debut.
The film is rated R, and contains rough language and adult situations.