The Indian Runner marks the screenwriting and directorial debut of Sean Penn. Inspired by Bruce Springsteen's song "Highway Patrol," the film is set in Nebraska in 1968. Joe Roberts (David Morse), a farmer-turned-policeman, eagerly awaits the return of his younger brother Frank (Viggo Mortensen) from Vietnam. Hoping to usher him back into the family circle and the community where they grew up, Joe is disappointed when his restless and antisocial brother jumps a train heading out of town after only a brief visit.

Joe, who is married to a Mexican woman (Valerie Golino) and is the proud father of a young son, represents the conventional world Frank has rejected. Following the death of their mother and the suicide of their depressed father (Charles Bronson), the two brothers are reunited. Frank's girlfriend (Patricia Arquette) is pregnant, and he takes a job on a construction crew. Although he wants to live up to Joe's high hopes for him, Frank's violence comes to the surface and results in the savage murder of a bartender.

The Indian Runner, despite being hobbled by poor pacing and indulgent photographic excursions, honestly explores the love/hate relationship between two brothers destined to follow separate stars. Viggo Mortensen gives an impressive performance as the self-destructive Frank, a wildman who chooses to remain outside the rules and responsibilities of civilized society.