By John H. Foote
26. AT CLOSE RANGE (1986)
So many of the great films of the eighties were somehow lost in the shuffle of blockbusters and major studio films, they were relegated to minor releases and re-discovered on home video when they were released to that medium. Such a film was James Foley’s searing work At Close Range (1986). Had critics been paying attention, had all the critics realized what an extraordinary American film this was, I have no doubt it would have been a major player in the Academy Awards race. In 1986 Oliver Stone’s Platoon dominated the Oscars, but I daresay At Close Range was easily as good and better than many of the nominees for Best Picture.
The Mission? Please. A Room with a View? Good film but not a great one. Hannah and Her Sisters, brilliant. Children of a Lesser God? Nope, weak. At Close Range was stronger (read greater) than three of the Academy Award nominees for Best Film, with only Platoon and Hannah and Her Sisters better pictures, yet it was ignored by the Academy.
Foley directed the film sparingly, recalling Badlands (1974), and the film was anchored by two superlative lead performances from Sean Penn and Christopher Walken, the latter never better, never more insidious and purely evil. They played off one another, drawing out the energy from the other and the result was two simply electrifying performances that dominated in every way this very film. For little more than two hours we watch a masterclass in extraordinary method acting and cannot look away from the screen, so astounding is their work.
Based on the true story of the Johnston crime family, who in the sixties and seventies were thieves, robbers and eventually murderers. Bruce Johnston Sr. was the leader of the gang and in the film, though renamed Whitewood, he is embodied as purely evil by Christopher Walken at the very top of his game.
Bored with his small town life, Brad Jr. (Sean Penn) lives in poverty with his mom and grandmother in a rundown house where all they have to do is watch TV endlessly or cruise through town in cars that are always breaking down. One night Brad spots a pretty girl who attracts him, Terry (Mary Stuart Masterton), and the two fast become a couple. Into Brad Jr.’s life one day walks his father Brad Sr. (Walken) driving a fast new car, throwing money on the table for Brad’s mother who openly despises him. Immediately attracted to the life his father lives, Brad Jr. begins spending time with his father, a known criminal and is soon reaping the rewards of his criminal life. His father hands him the keys to a hot car and brings his son into his criminal empire. Driving through the Pennsylvania countryside he tells him, “I see farms, I see money.” Brad Jr. jumps in on both feet and soon is stealing tractors and farm equipment for his father, who approves of his son’s activities. Brad Jr. involves his younger brother Tommy (Chris Penn) and his other friends most willing to make some fast money for stealing.
But one night Brad Jr. witnesses the full extent of his father’s personality when a man Is killed because his father says he must die. Thought to be an informer, Brad Sr. orders the man executed as Brad Jr. watches in horror. At that moment he decides to get out. But then the grand jury starts sending out warrants for the young men in Brad Jr.’s gang, and Brad Sr. decides the kids are better off dead. He begins wiping them out, even Tommy, but when he finds out Brad Jr. is talking to the FBI, his anger overflows. He sends a statement. He picks up Terry with the lie that they will go and see Brand Jr. in prison, and instead takes her to a hotel and rapes her. His son lashes back by happily giving the police the information they want for the grand jury and his own freedom. Brad Jr. and Terry decide to run away to Montana but are ambushed at Terry’s house as they prepare to leave. Brad Jr. is shot several times, surviving, but Terry is dead. Knowing who set this up he goes to see his father.
Finding the gun he knows is in the washroom, he holds his father at bay, waiting for the police to arrive. He knows the wounds he has will put his father away for the rest of his life, but he has to stay conscious first. Both for the first time demonstrate genuine fear, Brad Jr. that he will lose consciousness, and Brad Sr. that he will not.
Brad Jr. lives to see his father in court and tells the court that “that is my father” and testifies against him, altering the course of both men’s lives forever.
Let me clear, this film soars because of the acting, directing and the strains of the song that Madonna composed for the picture “Live to Tell”. The pop star was dating Penn at the time and dying to break through into movies, and while there was no part for her in the film, her song lent a truly melancholy aspect to the picture. Her first lyric, “I have a tale to tell…” seems to be coming from Brad Jr.’s mouth at the end of the film in the court room.
Penn was always a great actor, from the moment he began auditioning around Hollywood, everyone had heard of this kid with extraordinary talent. After a year of auditions, he exploded in Taps (1981) and a year later had a massive hit with golden reviews in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), giving an iconic performance as the stoned surfer dude, Spicoli.
Penn was instantly a major star. When cast in this film, he knew as did Walken it was the chance for a performance of a lifetime. The two actors instantly liked one another and, though at odds in the film, they were fast friends off screen. Penn captured the starry-eyed kid idolizing his father, but the change after seeing murder is profound. Tearfully asking where Tommy is, he already knows the answer, his father killed his son. It is a superb piece of acting that should have landed Penn his first Academy Award nomination. It would be nine years before he would be nominated for an actor in Dead Man Walking (1995). In the following years he would be nominated twice more before winning Best Actor for his triumphant performance for Clint Eastwood in Mystic River (2003) and a second as Harvey Milk for Gus Van Sant in the superb Milk (2008). Watch him here as a young man, still discovering his talents, watch the mounting horror and realization of what his father was, and what he had done to Tommy, Brad Sr.’s younger brother.
As Brad Sr., Christopher Walken is evil personified, wolf-like as the man willing to kill his own child to stay out of prison, an absolute monster. Lean, and powerful like the dancer he was on Broadway, Walken used his lazy confidence to capture Brad Sr., confident as the leader of the gang, and committed to doing whatever has to be done to stay out of the courts and prison. His meltdown when he discovers Brad is cooperating with the FBI is terrifying because we understand by the look on his face, what he is going to do. And the plead pathetic plead from Tommy, “Dad … no” before being shot dead is heartbreaking and indicative of Brad Sr.’s ruthlessness. It is a truly brilliant performance.
Walken had won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Award for The Deer Hunter (1978) but was not nominated again until 2002’s Catch Me If You Can, for director Steven Spielberg. Today he is recognized as one of the screen’s greatest actors, but also regarded as an actor who will do virtually any film for the right price. His questionable choices have drawn sharply into view the times he is superb, because so often he is not. Seeing some of his lesser work makes me long for great Walken, because when in his element, when in a great role with a solid director, he can still soar.
Foley gave the film a frank honesty and rural look, though there were complaints that some of the cinematography made the area look too beautiful. I do not see that, and why cannot rural be beautiful? He was obviously thrilled with the performances because the camera often seemed to be caressing Penn and Walken with gentle love, despite the darkness of the material. Together the two are simply electrifying and their director gives them the room to do it. Foley was, I think, an extraordinary director who, had he been careful, could have become one of the giants of the eighties in American film. He built a slow sense of dread throughout the film; we just knew something terrible is going to happen and indeed it does. Sadly the only other film of any note he directed was Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), adapted from the play by David Mamet. It also contained with exceptional performances including the last great performance of Jack Lemmon who was expected to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor, but was instead snubbed. To me it is deeply disturbing to find this great director sink to the depths of directing Fifty Shades Darker (2017) and Fifty Shades Freed (2018).
Film however is immortal as are the performances on the screen, and Foley achieves that immortality with At Close Range, a truly great American film.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.