Monday, March 21, 2016

Retro Review: AT CLOSE RANGE (1986)

(US - 1986)

Despite significant critical acclaim and spawning a huge radio and MTV hit with Madonna's "Live to Tell," AT CLOSE RANGE only made it to 83 screens at its widest release in the spring of 1986. Orion undoubtedly had a hard time figuring out how to sell this extremely dark, bleak, and depressing crime saga to a mainstream audience. Inspired by true events and set in rural Pennsylvania in 1978 (The Rolling Stones' "Miss You" and A Taste of Honey's "Boogie Oogie Oogie" make soundtrack appearances), the film follows delinquent Brad Whitewood, Jr (Sean Penn), who gets reacquainted with his white trash criminal father Brad Sr. (Christopher Walken), and is seduced into his dad's dangerous gang only to realize too late that he's in too deep and that not even bonds of family and blood mean a whole lot to Brad Sr if it gets in the way of his business. Brad Jr's situation is further complicated by his falling in love with farm girl Terri (Mary Stuart Masterson), with Brad Sr determined to stop them from running away together, especially after Brad Jr, his brother Tommy (Chris Penn)--who may or may not be Brad Sr's son--and their buddies (among them Crispin Glover and FRIGHT NIGHT's Stephen Geoffreys), are pinched committing their own half-assed burglary, get bailed out and promptly subpoenaed by the grand jury, with Brad Sr. stopping at absolutely nothing to keep the boys from telling what they know about his activities.

Though the similarities are on the surface, the presence of Glover arguably makes AT CLOSE RANGE a bit of a dry run for the even more hopeless, fucked-at-birth horrors of 1987's RIVER'S EDGE and, at least in terms of its presentation of lost youth and utterly worthless parenting, Larry Clark's Glover-less 2001 film BULLY. Brad Jr and Tommy drink, cause trouble, and deal weed, all out in the open as their mom (Millie Perkins, almost 30 years after THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK) and grandma (Eileen Ryan, Sean and Chris' mom) look the other way. The only person who attempts to instill some responsibility and discipline in Brad Jr. is his mom's blue-collar, working-man boyfriend (Alan Autry), who promptly gets dumped for his efforts. The opening hour is draggy and a bit meandering, but the more it goes on, the darker and more unsettling it gets, going from downbeat to suffocating as everyone feels the wrath of a housecleaning Brad Sr. Walken is unforgettable in one of his most powerful and surprisingly restrained performances, absolutely terrifying while significantly dialing down his eccentric Walkenisms and using them as sparingly as he ever would. His dead glare as you look in the eyes of a heartless sociopath who has zero hesitation about killing his own son is the stuff of nightmares. Make no mistake, Walken's Brad Sr is one the most chillingly diabolical monsters you've ever seen in this type of film, and that's saying something considering the same calendar year gave us Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET. He's matched by Penn, and their final confrontation is almost overwhelmingly intense, especially in a moment of genuine terror on Walken's face when Penn switched prop guns just before the cameras rolled--Walken was obsessive about checking the safety of prop guns used in his scenes--and stuck an unchecked one right in Walken's face to get the response needed ("Whoa! Don't!"). Penn and Madonna were married at the time (this was also the year of SHANGHAI SURPRISE), and the film's biggest flaw is the incessant instrumental invocation of "Live to Tell," which sounds too 1986 contemporary for the otherwise accurate period setting (it was originally intended for the Craig Sheffer/Virginia Madsen thriller FIRE WITH FIRE but was nixed at the last minute and used here instead). The film was written by Nicholas Kazan (son of the legendary Elia Kazan) and directed by James Foley, who would direct Madonna in the 1987 bomb WHO'S THAT GIRL? before going on to better things with 1990's AFTER DARK, MY SWEET and 1992's GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. Also with Candy Clark, Tracey Walter, David Strathairn, J.C. Quinn, R.D. Call, and a young Kiefer Sutherland as one of Tommy's buddies. AT CLOSE RANGE isn't mentioned a lot these days, but it stands the test of time as one of the most powerful films of the late '80s, and necessary viewing for Penn and Walken fans. (R, 111 mins)

No comments:

Post a Comment