At Close Range (1986)

4 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“At Close Range” tells a sad, cruel, merciless story about a boy who respects his father who would just as soon kill him in order to save himself. And as a movie, it’s violent and unforgiving, but it’s also powerfully acted and very effective. Even more shocking is that it’s based on true events that occurred in 1978.

Sean Penn stars as young Bradford Whitewood, Jr., a rebellious young misfit with little to no potential and lives in a life of untidy poverty in Tennessee with his divorced mother, grandmother, and half-brother Tommy (Christopher Penn, Sean’s real-life younger brother). Two very important people come into his life (or one of them actually back into his life). One is a neat farm girl, named Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson), whom he meets and starts hanging out with. Another is Bradford Whitewood, Sr. (Christopher Walken), his criminal father who only comes in every now and then to give money. Brad Sr. seems to be doing all right for himself, as Brad Jr. notices. Brad Jr. wants to know more about him, so he decides to live at his place with his gang of professional thieves. Brad Jr. isn’t necessarily the criminal type, but he is reckless, as we saw in an opening scene where he deals unusually and effectively with a man who cheated Tommy and a buddy of his out of a bottle of liquor. He decides he wants a taste of his father’s gang’s action, since it seems a lot more exciting than what he has now. So he rallies his own gang—Tommy and his friends (Stephen Geoffreys, Crispin Glover, and Kiefer Sutherland)—and Brad Sr. assigns them to perform easy robbery tasks for them, in order to prepare for the big stuff that they want to try sometime. But while Brad Jr. is in orbit around his father’s world, his relationship with Terry, who becomes his girlfriend, strengthens and he’s hoping Brad Sr. will “come up with some money” in order to provide a place for him and her to live. However, he finds that Brad Sr. is more than a robber, but that he’s a sick, twisted killer who kills anyone who gets in his way. Brad Jr. learns the hard way when he witnesses Brad Sr. shoot a former member of his gang in the head at close range. Then, things get more dangerous when Brad Jr.’s gang messes up on a job and are busted. Brad Sr. knows that he and his own gang will be connected to all of this, and ultimately decides to take drastic measures to save himself. This also means betraying his son, to kill him if need be.

Brad Sr. is a ruthless S.O.B. and Christopher Walken shows the dark side with intensity. This is one of Walken’s best performances in a film—he has a great ability to move between easygoingness to straight-up malice, and it really comes through in this film. Sometimes he can be a wise guy, as when he enjoys the fact that Brad Jr. idolizes him and plays around it, acting like a big shot most of the time. But when he’s mad, he can turn into a truly evil creature of a man. And he won’t care whom he has to kill to save himself.

“At Close Range” is sometimes an uneasy film to watch. It’s not pleasant or particularly charming, except for the first scenes featuring Brad Jr. and Terry (their relationship is the only sweet part of the movie). It’s very violent, especially in the final act, and seems to glamorize the lifestyles of this gang of violent criminals that Brad Jr. wants to be a part of. And when things go very wrong, the movie still doesn’t let up. But it also makes “At Close Range” an effective portrait of human nature while also delivering the much-needed subtle message against violence and gun use.

Sean Penn is excellent as Brad Jr., creating a conflicted young man caught between two worlds—the nice little world he shares with his girlfriend and the mysterious world with his father that later becomes life-threateningly violent. He’s perfectly natural and very strong in the role.

Maybe “At Close Range” isn’t the movie for you, if you don’t like violence or think this story is too much. But I think it is worth seeing for the performances by Penn and Walken. These are two of the brightest, strongest actors who deliver excellent performances.

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