At Close Range (1986)

At one point, I was looking at how many films I owned with certain actors in them, amongst the names on that list were Sam Neill, Christopher Walken and Kiefer Sutherland–essentially actors I’m a big enough fan of that I felt their miniscule appearances in my DVD collection were not accurately representative of my appreciation of their talents. As such, I began browsing their filmographies on IMDb and adding films that were well-reviewed overall and/or sounded interesting.

Imagine my surprise when I stumble across a film I’d never heard of that stars Christopher Walken and Sean Penn (!). A glance at the credits further adds Sean’s brother Chris, who I like as well, and looking further down we can even find a pre-Lost Boys Kiefer Sutherland, Crispin Glover and even Tracey Walter (aka “Bob,” the Joker’s “number one guy” in Tim Burton’s Batman). As I was watching, a voice and face jumped out attached to a name that wouldn’t immediately do so–Stephen Geoffreys, known to fans of 80s horror as Fright Night‘s “Evil Ed.” Great voice that guy had then (I’d imagine he still has it, but perhaps it has flattened itself out from that oddly jerky calliope of constantly nervous tone).

Brad Whitewood, Jr. (Sean Penn) is a slacker in a small family, living with his mother, brother Tommy (naturally his real brother Chris) and grandmother (Eileen Ryan–MOTHER of Chris and Sean), smoking pot, working on his truck and generally having fun but doing little of responsibility. He meets a girl, Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson), and falls hard. Randomly one day, a man enters their home and leaves money for their mother. Brad is transfixed and begins to follow the man–his father, Brad Whitewood, Sr. (Walken), who gives him a car and some money, then eventually lets him join up with Big Brad’s gang of thieves who often work by stealing tractors then laundering money in simplistic ways. When he is exposed to the ruthlessness of his father, Brad begins to forge out on his own, a misfiring tractor theft plan with his friends (including Geoffreys, Glover and Sutherland) leads to his arrest. Now he begins to really see the man his father is, and it’s not quite who he thought, nor even quite what we thought.

Is it any surprise to say performances in this movie are excellent? I sure hope not. If it is, you are either unfamiliar with the names I’ve mentioned or mis-read them. Walken is disturbingly intense and cold as the unforgiving and amoral Brad, Sr. and Penn brings an appreciable sense of worship to the father he has just discovered, as well as an appropriate sense of ignorant naïveté as regards the life of crime his father lives. Masterson is excellent as a young girl trying to act older than herself to match the men around her, defending Penn–foolishly–against his father’s gang as they snicker at his desire to enter the gang.

The movie is dark, it’s bleak, it’s unhappy and it pulls no punches. Apparently based on a true story (I normally read about them before writing reviews when this occurs, but have not this time) but seeming most definitely like something we hope is NOT real. The tone and atmosphere, though, are my favourite. Most of the score is actually an instrumental version of Penn’s then-wife Madonna’s song “Live to Tell,” an aching synthetic piano and keyboard line which, in my 80’s-infected brain is the perfect example of heartstring-pulling, over even some of the most beautiful scores of the likes of Morricone. This is not to say it’s better, but I feel some kind of greater identification with these half-false sounds than I do with the real ones, thanks to the things that I grew up with. It has a feel similar to Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 opus Near Dark, which has a fantastic Tangerine Dream score, and is a film I openly identify as perfectly capturing the kind of feel and cinematography that hits something deep inside me. A sort of darkness to everything, but one filled with thick, rich colours that are just above reality without crossing into the more modern lines of the carefully controlled and orchestrated colouration. It feels like reality, in some ways, as this richness enhances existing elements of reality in the film, bringing things that would otherwise seem like real theatricality–i.e., events we can see and identify with–and bringing them more to life by giving them that extra edge of sense-battering feeling, using the artificially enhanced colour to bring a flat screen to life, simply by having that much greater an effect on our sense of sight.

There’s a very haunting scene toward the end composed primarily of extreme close-ups against a black background with that same synthetic instrumental pop ballad scoring which perfectly captures the correct usage of music video editing in a non-action film. It is not about how many cuts or how many close-ups and images can be crammed into a space of time, but what simple images can be used to rapidly convey ideas and feelings in a reduced amount of time.

I’ve just got to point out that Crispin Glover’s hairstyle and behaviour, including his acting, in this movie further worry me about his actual mental state. I think this guy is at least slightly nuts, or possibly some sort of alien. I suppose he just blazes his own path and all, which I can identify with, but, man, I hope for his sake that this strange insanity does not get him into trouble or leave him FEELING as alienated as he looks. If you doubt what I say, look for some of his late night interviews. Something is going on there. Maybe he just enjoys playing with people (a la Andy Kaufman) but I don’t know. Perhaps there are chemicals involved…

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