There he goes, showing us the ugly again.
These are words I seem to remember Brad Pitt saying about Sean Penn in an old Rolling Stone interview. And while I can find no proof of this quote online, the statement (real or invented) rings true. Penn has never been afraid to look, be, or “show us” the ugly in any film he has ever made. There is an integrity in Penn’s work—even when the film is unsuccessful.
At Close Range is a film that, if it’s remembered at all, is remembered for Madonna’s (Penn’s wife at the time) great theme song, “Live to Tell”—a well-deserved number one hit on the Billboard chart in 1986, the year of the film’s release. I’m here to tell you, though, that the movie, based on a true life rural crime syndicate led by a malevolent father figure, deserved far better.
Father and son, played respectively by Christopher Walken and Sean Penn, are reunited when Brad Sr. steps back into Brad Jr.’s life unexpectedly, turning up on his ex-wife’s doorstep to hand Jr. a couple hundred bucks. With that action, a chain of events is set in motion that reunites father and son, but for all the worst reasons. After his mother’s loser boyfriend kicks him out of the house, Junior reaches out to his father and gets taken in—sadly in more ways than one.
Brad Jr. craves his father’s love and attention, and the easy money he makes helping his dad steal tractors and crack safes with his younger half-brother Tommy (well played by Penn’s real-life brother, Chris), goes a long way towards making him feel like a man. Now, Jr. can take out his girlfriend Terry (a never-better Mary Stuart Masterson), buy her a necklace, and plan a tentative future.
The trouble is that Sr.’s interest in his son extends only as far as a loose end can. When Jr. pulls away from his father after seeing him order the murder of a loose lipped former member of his crew, it’s not long before Jr. ends up in his father’s crosshairs, but not before Terry, and later, Tommy, feel Sr.’s wrath. The scene where Brad Sr. gets Terry drunk and takes her to a dingy hotel room is a horrifying example of predatory male behavior.
“The answer is no,” Terry says.
“I ain’t askin’,” Sr. replies.
It’s a sizable statement to say that Christopher Walken has never been better than he is in At Close Range, but I’m saying it. As extraordinary as his career has been, at a certain point, even when giving a great performance, you know you are watching the Christopher Walken. At Close Range is the last time I can recall Walken completely disappearing into character.
That’s not to say that Walken’s trademark mannerisms aren’t on display here—the odd pauses in speech, the dead-eyed stare, and the unpredictable moments of humor—it’s all here in this film. But there’s something more natural about his affectations in this 1986 backwoods Pennsylvania noir. Maybe it’s because he wasn’t yet the icon he later became. He hadn’t yet danced in a Fatboy Slim video, or talked about hiding a watch up his ass in Pulp Fiction. He wasn’t yet the “more cowbell” guy on Saturday Night Live. Whatever the case, Walken is equal parts charming and chilling as he goes from buying his son a car to adding him to his hit list. Walken is showing us the ugly, too.
Relatedly, while Sean Penn’s star was also on the rise, he wasn’t quite that Sean Penn just yet. Cueing the film up again, it’s almost shocking to see how young and genuinely beautiful he looks here. While it’s not surprising that Penn was already a compelling presence, it’s noteworthy how confident he must have been in his own talent. Penn underplays his role, letting Walken eat up the scenery like a famished coyote, while giving the audience a window into his world. He always lets us see the sweetness in Jr., resting just beneath the surface, that makes him so vulnerable to his father. This quality is also what makes Penn so heartbreaking in the film’s climax, as a bloody, bullet-ridden Jr. faces down his father and asks, “Is this the family gun, dad?” It’s a powerhouse moment in a movie that burns slow up until then.
Watching Walken’s Brad Sr. trying to talk his way out of the moment, trying to pretend that he loves his son, trying to say anything that will keep his boy from pulling the trigger, while Penn’s Brad Jr. must decide whether to shoot his own father is a masterful and wrenching sequence. The duplicity of the father and the deep hurt of the son is almost unbearable to watch.
At Close Range is more than just a great crime movie with a collection of terrific performances; it is also a poignant statement on the cycle of violence that impacts so many families. While the film may have criminality at its core, the larger, more universal theme of what is passed down to you from those who you are surrounded by due to an accident of birth is unmissable.
Beyond that, the film is a brilliantly observed slice of small town life. It captures the desire to escape from the boredom of that world by any means possible—whether it’s through as bucolic a pastime as inner-tubing down a river, as reckless as joy-riding on the hood of a car, or simply dreaming of a life you know you may well lack the capacity to reach. The film captures all of those in-between moments that go beyond solid storytelling, venturing into something of greater resonance. Having lived in a small town not so dissimilar from Lancaster (the place where the actual crimes took place), having taken part in all those time-killing activities, having pensively dreamed of a better life, I can say with confidence that these moments ring true.
The film’s director, James Foley, has had one of the stranger careers of any filmmaker I can think of. Along with At Close Range, Foley has made a total of three stone cold classics: 1990’s woefully underseen noir After Dark, My Sweet (starring Jason Patric and Rachel Ward), and 1992’s titanic tale of male desperation Glengarry Glen Ross. After that, however, the drop is steep. Confidence (starring Edward Burns and Rachel Weisz) and Fear (with Mark Wahlberg and Reese Witherspoon) are entertaining enough, but nowhere near the level of his three great films. And to think that the same director was at the helm of such clinkers as Who’s That Girl?, The Chamber, and Two Bits is almost beyond belief. (And when you add in that Foley’s last two films are parts two and three of the Fifty Shades trilogy, the mind simply reels.)
It can be hard to know what separates an auteur from a solid craftsman, or a guy who just caught lightning in a bottle a couple of times. Squaring away the twists and turns of Foley’s career is like trying to solve a riddle wrapped up inside of an enigma. It can’t be done.
But what can (and should) be done is for any film lover searching for an overlooked masterpiece to go and find At Close Range on whatever streaming service carrying it at the time and revel in a perfectly told story of how the ties that bind fathers and sons can also tear them apart.
It’s not a pretty story, but sometimes we need to see the ugly, and few actors have been willing to show us the ugly quite like Sean Penn. Here, in tandem with Walken, At Close Range is a perfect example of that curse-like gift in vibrant action.