By John H. Foote
At Close Range (****)

Of all the films I have seen which never found an audience or the acclaim it so richly deserved, At Close Range (1986), based on a true story, is in the top five. Superb on every level, I sat awestruck the first time I saw the film and not a thing has changed, after watching it again early this morning. The picture remains just as dark, as powerful, frightening and haunting as it was thirty-two years ago.

With astounding performances from Sean Penn, having established himself as the finest young actor of his generation, Christopher Walken, able to be congenial and then suddenly terrifying, and Mary Stuart Masterson, always so much better than she was given credit for being.

The score was created after Madonna wrote her song for the film “Live to Tell”, slowing down the song, using it as a theme, the song playing over the end credits.

Based on a true story of a career criminal, long estranged from his sons who uses them to help with his business, stealing farm equipment.

In perhaps his finest screen performance Walken is positively terrifying as Brad Sr., the father of Brad Jr., portrayed by Sean Penn. watching the two actors together onscreen is a masterclass in film acting, you simply cannot look away, nor breathe in fear of missing something. Like a king cobra, Walken pulls his sons close to him, almost hypnotizing them with his presence. Though they know through their mother that he is a very bad, dangerous man, they are caught up in the rock star glare that he gives off, they want to be a part of that world. Throwing around money, amounts the boys have never seen before, buying Brad Jr. a car, showing them the ropes, the boys believe they are making a connection with him.

But one night a former associate comes into the restaurant where Brad Sr. is treating his gang to a meal, and clearly, they have been looking for him. They take him with them, and then very quietly murder him in a pond on a back road. At that moment Brad Jr. wants out. Angry that his sons and their friends know too much, he begins killing them off, one by one, making his way to Brad Jr. the full impact of his monstrous behaviour is confirmed when he shoots dead Tommy, his stepson.

When the police start talking to Brad Jr., his father sends a message, raping and beating his sons’ girlfriend Terri (Mary Stuart Masterson). Enraged Brad Jr. calls the police and gives them enough information to put his father away for a long time. That night he and Terri have packed to leave town to be free of him when they are ambushed by Brad Sr.’s gang, Terri killed in a hail of bullets, Brad Jr. badly injured.

He goes to his father’s home that night where the older man is stunned to see him. Knowing he does not have long before the police arrive, Brad Sr. hopes his son will pass out from blood loss, while the boy keeps his father at gunpoint.

The two actors do what truly great actors do, they feed off each other, using the energy the other is sending out to deepen their performance. Walken is extraordinary as a deadly man so filled with anger and hate, but masking it with a smile. He is both, psychopathic and a sociopath, with no regard for right or wrong, or human life. This is by far the finest work of his career.

Sean Penn was still evolving as an actor but the word in Hollywood had been high on him since 1980 when he began auditioning. His work in this film helped define him as a great actor, even if it was underseen. We see in his eyes the growing awareness of just what a monster his father his, the disappointment, the hurt, the shame. Even greater is his own shame about his involvement with this man who killed both his brother and girlfriend and attempted to kill Brad Jr.

Chris Penn portrayed Pena’s doomed younger brother Tommy, and there are early performances from Crispin Glover, Kiefer Sutherland and David Strathairn, none of whom disappoints. Candy Clark does strong supporting work as Walken’s girlfriend, who with her knowing eyes, is aware of exacting what her partner is up too.

Both actors give towering performances, each should have been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor.

James Foley superbly directed the film and seemed poised to have a major career, but it just never came to pass. Too bad because he has Kazan like gifts with his actors and atmosphere. We sense the boredom the young people feel in the small town which offers them little to do. Poverty is a way of life to Brad Jr., but when his father creeps back into his life, suddenly his pockets are full. Foley beautifully captures how the boys are seduced into wrong-doing by Brad Sr., the deadliest of alpha males.

A true buried treasure, At Close Range (1986) is among the very best of the eighties.

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