Sean Penn makes an arresting directorial debut with this intense character drama inspired in equal parts by the stark, folksy, early-'80s recordings of singer/songwriter Bruce Springsteen (the film is loosely based on his song "Highway Patrolman") and the improvisational films of actor/director John Cassavetes. Like the latter's work, Penn's first behind-the-camera foray is somewhat light on story mechanics; those accustomed to plot-heavy, preprogrammed Hollywood entertainment will likely be bored. Those seeking a richer, more reality-based and character-driven intellectualism will be delighted by the film's brooding, introspective qualities, its dedication to emotional truth, and its skillful, subtle deployment of violence that bubbles just under the surface of every scene. Leads Viggo Mortensen and David Morse are superb, which is no surprise given the extent to which The Indian Runner is an actors' picture. If the proceedings are a little flat and lacking in visual punch, Penn proves himself supremely gifted at working with fellow thespians; his subsequent directorial efforts would star such luminaries as Jack Nicholson and Helen Mirren.