By Marc S. Sanders

Sean Penn has been a gifted actor from the very beginning of his career.  Whoever thought the kid who played surfer dude Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times At Ridgemont High would go on to evoke such intensity in future roles afterwards?  Other actors who did that kind of sophomoric material went on to be in Police Academy movies.  Penn would never shake that surfer image, but he would at least equally receive accolades for his dramatic turns. In James Foley’s At Close Range the high stakes drama could not be more apparent. 

Penn portrays Brad Whitefore, Jr. in this film based on a true story taking place in a small, rural Pennsylvania town in 1978.  Brad Jr.  is going nowhere and that’s fine with him.  He’d rather be an intimidating, fearless kid who will defy his step father so he and his brother (Chris Penn, Sean’s real-life sibling) can get drunk and high.  When Brad opts to go live at his father’s, Brad Sr., house, he hopes that he will learn the ropes of becoming a career criminal like his dad.  Brad Sr. (Christopher Walken) specializes in ripping off tractors, farm equipment, cars, wealthy property owners, and safes carrying large amounts of cash.  He happily welcomes his son into his home with his misfit gang and his new young wife.  Dad will also express love to his son by giving him a car and support, while also welcoming in Jr’s new girlfriend Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson). 

There is a code among these criminals however, and it stretches to flesh and blood as well.  No one is to talk about what they do or how they do it.  Shortly after dad allows his son join in on a job, Brad Jr. learns of the consequences if anyone talks about their handiwork, especially if you are seen chatting with local law enforcement.

At Close Range came out in 1986.  Even by then, I don’t think it would be challenging to forecast where the story is heading.  What’s most interesting about the film are the cast performances from Penn, Walken, and Masterson.  James Foley sets up good scenes where loving trust works at one point, but when that is shattered, what is the detritus left over afterwards?  Christopher Walken plays a guy with no limits to upholding his code, and as I reflect on that motivation, I can’t help but think how relevant Madonna’s eerie ballad Live To Tell (from her True Blue album) is so very important to the picture.  The song should have received an Oscar nomination based on its significance alone.  I’ve only now just seen the movie for the first time.  Yet, I’ve been familiar with the song for nearly forty years.  It carries much more meaning now.

James Foley’s film could’ve been better, however.  The first hour is incredibly slow moving and doesn’t seem to offer much direction or exposition for what the film is truly going to be about.  At some points it is a boy meets girl storyline with Penn and Masterson.  They have good scenes together, but were they all necessary?  Couldn’t some of this material ended up on the cutting room floor?  Then in other areas it is a father/son coming of age piece where pals from both of their respective backgrounds get drunk together on any given night.  Brad Sr. is emulated for his leadership, the gun he carries, the money he flashes and the high-end muscle cars he steals, even gifting one to his son.  Brad Jr. is looked upon as the cool rebel (maybe a more aggressive modern James Dean) for not surrendering to intimidation from anybody. 

The movie also ends kind of abruptly.  It’s clearly understood what’s going to come of the father and son’s relationship.  Sean Penn and Christopher Walken stage a nail biting, very intense showdown in the kitchen.  However, what happens to them individually?  The final scene actually ends right in the middle of what could have been some good dramatic work, but it all goes to black.  Had I been in a movie theatre, I might have thought the projector broke down.  Business must have interfered behind the scenes.  A producer must have stepped in and pulled the plug.  It’s the best excuse I can think of, because the end credits intruded way too soon.  If the film was being edited for length, then there was much material to chop out of the first hour.  The filmmakers basically cut off the wrong leg.

At Close Range is not a steady trajectory of a movie.  It moves in too many sideways directions to stay focused on what it wants to be considered.  Is it a more genuine Rebel Without A Cause?  Is it a rural, backwoods interpretation with inspiration from Mean Streets?  Thankfully, what saved me from turning it off or falling asleep are the assembled cast performances.  At the very least, it got me interested to read up on the real story the film is based on.

4 thoughts on “AT CLOSE RANGE”

  1. I remember liking this film when I first saw it in my teens. Especially Madonna’s song. It was the second Sean Penn film that I saw after The Falcon & The Snowman and the best film with Christopher Walken for me at the time. Thanks for your review.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for reading Mike. I only just saw this film for the first time ahead of writing my review. I think it would have had more an impact for me had I seen it more close to when it was originally released.

      I think Penn has become a more impactful actor since this time and where the film chose to come to a close didn’t sit right with me.

      Thanks for your comment. Appreciate your viewpoint, as always.

      Liked by 1 person

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