At Close Range (1986) 4.19/5 (3)


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Rating: The Good – 76.4
Genre: Crime
Duration: 111 mins
Director: James Foley
Stars: Sean Penn, Christopher Walken, Mary Stuart Masterson

A rare and largely forgotten gem, At Close Range is one of those films that stands apart from almost every other movie you’ll ever see. Based on a true life tale of a crime family who oversaw robberies, burglaries, and murder in suburban and rural Pennsylvania during the 1970’s, it follows the fortunes of a young man (Sean Penn) stuck in the socio-economic quagmire of 80’s rural depression, who is drawn towards his estranged but charismatic father (Christopher Walken) and his criminal lifestyle. Of course, that life takes on a darker shade as he gets closer and closer and when he witnesses his father killing someone, he retreats and sets in motion a series of events that have terrible consequences for his brother (played by Sean’s real-life brother Chris) and girlfriend (Mary Stuart Masterson).

At Close Range is a strangely thoughtful film. Elliott Lewitt and Nicholas Kazan’s story captures all the nuances of the life in which Sean’s character, his brother, and his friends are drowning. This is particularly impressive because not only are the characters too immature to articulate this malaise in words (this is the way most films would get this across) but they seem largely oblivious to it (as most people who are stuck in a rut do). Therefore, it’s the inane horseplay, the nightly routines, and the interactions of the characters as well as James Foely’s superb approach behind the camera that get this across. The protagonists’ lack of awareness of their own hidden wants and desires makes their recruitment by a wily crook all the more believable not to mention dramatic and, undoubtedly, Walken was the perfect actor to take advantage of such rich pretext. He is truly electric in his role of the unscrupulous father who attracts the audience and chills them in the same manner as he does his son. It’s not a case of brilliant acting on Walken’s part (in fact, it can be difficult to understand his trademark mumbling at times), just astonishing presence and a director who knew how to funnel it into every scene even those he isn’t directly involved in.

As addictive as Walken is, this remains Sean Penn’s film. He knows exactly who his character is and he spends the entire film balancing the intensity of his personality with an age-appropriate (not to mention paternally cultivated) confusion. Here too, however, there seems to be an intuitive understanding between actor and director as Foley seems to rein the drama in at all times to the match the pitch of his star. There’s an obscure but beautifully constructed haze to this movie which is couched in a quintessential 1980’s inertia. The soft lighting and Patrick Leonard’s electronic score are chiefly responsible for this but it’s Foley’s hand that tailors them to Penn and Walken’s dynamic. And during the more violent moments, it’s Foley and the manner in which he frames his stars who cuts through the thick atmosphere with brutal and shocking precision. All this isn’t to imply that At Close Range is a two-man acting show as much of the film is built around a rather large cast of excellent actors (many of them up-and-coming at the time) playing an array of colourful characters.

At Close Range is a pure and striking thriller that at all times remains its own film. It’s coloured by a distinct and dangerous tone that seems to envelop the audience as the film progresses. There are some loose nuts and bolts here and there, particularly when it comes to the final act. Certain aspects to the plot are rushed and certain actions seem out of place. However, none of this takes away from the deeply realised themes of family, loyalty, and self-preservation nor from that uniquely spare ambiance and those wonderfully deep tones.

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