It is important to note some of the changes from the narrative poem to the film. The biggest change was in regards to the character of the protagonist, who was changed from an African-American to a white man. In addition, the gang killed the protagonist in the short story while only injuring Stoker in the movie. These alterations are not small or meaningless differences. In fact, it has the ability to completely change the impact of the story and the meaning of it. For instance, the poem is about racism or racial inequality. The movie is about a simple crime taking advantage of a man down on his luck. The difference between death and injury is also large. Death conveys many different things, including mortality and finality. However, the injury tends to be more typical of a Hollywood ending. This does not mean that these movies are any better or worse than the written works they were based on, but certainly it changes what we think about and how we are thinking about it.
“The Set-Up is absolutely marvellous to behold, for its visual style, the script and the acting. While Audrey Totter, an inimitable noir staple, is not given as much to do as one would hope (her presence is mostly felt in the first few scenes and the final one), Robert Ryan exudes the sad charisma of a man practically down on his luck, weathered but still kicking with everything he has left, boasting his confidence while most don’t believe it and others even want him to lose. He’s happy about his odds yet oblivious of the evil forces working against him, not to mention that crowds that mock him” (popoptique.com).
In The Indian Runner we focus on a man named Joe Roberts. He is a man who is also seemingly down on his luck, but doing ok. His younger brother Frank is home from Vietnam. It is quickly discovered that, although cleaned up, he is still very much a restless man. His father also confirms as much. Early in the film, the two brothers lose their mother. This sends the father into a depression, causing him to take his own life. Frank, who was in prison at the time of his mother’s passing, learns of the suicide and is seemingly calm with what has happened. As we will see later, these moments hit him harder than he initially let on. We now start to see how truly unstable Frank is and how his decisions impact the small town. Joe, who is trying to be a caring brother, continues to pursue Frank in all of his mistakes, using his power as an officer of the law to help him in times of severe trouble. Eventually, when all seems to be going well, Frank kills a bartender for seemingly no reason other than to break the status quo and ease his restless spirit. Joe pursues him in a squad car to the state line, stopping at the border to let him go, signifying that Joe must let his little brother go both physically and emotionally.
One more interesting point in contrast to The Set-Up is the lack of censorship. All throughout the movie there is heavy violence, language, drug use, and excessive nudity. This extends all the way to a very visual birthing scene that is shot alongside the final car chase. The seeming lack of care for what the audience might think of these excessive scenes tells the viewer exactly what Penn is trying to achieve. Life is gritty, it is hard, things happen, and sometimes you’re just going to have to bear it. There is no other way through life than to understand that hard things happen and you must continue to look at the things that are worth living for. To end on a quote about Penn’s debut, “However, as his first film behind the camera, “The Indian Runner” is hardly a work of mischievous youngster, a moody meditation on the bond of blood the two men share even if they no longer have the same perspective on the world after one returns from war” (Moveablefeast.com).