At Close Range (1986)
Starring Sean Penn, Christopher Walken, Mary Stuart Masterson, Chris Penn, Eileen Ryan
Director of Photography: Juan Ruiz Anchía
Music by Patrick Leonard
Edited by Howard Smith
Written by Nicholas Kazan
Directed by James Foley
Rating: 7 out of 10
At Close Range is a strangely conventional film made in an unconventional way and suffering at bit from its 80s heritage. It stars a young Sean Penn following his father’s criminal life for a while before moving away from it again. It both feels like an indie movie and a Brat Pack movie at the same time, due to its unusual filmmaking choices and the cast of young actors that were or would become famous. It is a bit long and not very exciting most of the time, but it has a certain appeal that gets stronger as the movie progresses. It doesn’t feel like a typical crime movie, more like a meditation exercise, many scenes of people staring and being silent, but it’s not necessarily boring. It is not a bad movie at all, even if I make it sound this way, it’s well filmed with an interesting use of light and shadows. I didn’t like the overly tropy opening scene, in which we learn just how cool of a character Sean Penn is and how fast the right girl falls for him. But it gets much better after that, apart from the ending (see below). The music is as 80s-synthie-bad as possible, though. The way it switches between fascinating and contrived is very symptomatic for James Foley’s future career as a director (who would follow this movie with the Madonna-vehicle Who's That Girl? and some years later would direct the classic Glengarry Glen Ross).
(spoilers from here)
Two aspects jump out to me. The movie revolves around a very conflicted father-son-relationship. Brad Sr. (Christopher Walken, very seductive and dangerous at the same time) falls in and out of his sons’ lives (Sean Penn and Chris Penn) and when he decides to stay, it is to make them accomplices in his various schemes. He lures them with power and money and cars and it takes a while until we realize how ruthless he actually is. But, as it is common in our culture, their relationship lacks any emotion and the boys both desperately want to follow their father, although he is still neglecting them of what they really need, an emotional bond (and which their mother can’t fully give either, because she is too depressed and bitter). Tommy is too detached already to even notice, but Brad Jr. is really disappointed and angry for being abandoned again.
The scenes towards the end of the movie are so shocking to us because they contradict our notion that fathers must love their children. But in a way, Brad Sr.’s behavior is only an extension of the detachment we are supposed to have early on, so that the children quickly learn to fight through life on their own. He thinks they don’t use the opportunities he offers them, so his reaction seems totally reasonable to him. He does what our culture tells him to do, think of himself first and favor greed over love. The final confrontation between Brad Sr. and Jr. is fascinating for showing how utterly unable he is to show love, even under the most desperate circumstances.
But if you then look at the very last scene, the emotional climax of the movie, as Brad Jr. decides to testify in court against his father, this is played as an incredible tough thing for him to do. He is crying and has to fight for words. I believe that our culture tells him (and us) that it is inherently wrong to speak out against your parents, that it is a betrayal. No matter how absurd that seems in the face of what he did to him by then. But still, “honor thy parents” (and by extension, obey authority) rules over everything. Seriously, if you look at that last moment you have to think that it can’t be that hard for him to seek vengeance against the monster he is facing. No, the movie says, that is still a big deal. Brad is not crying for all the terrible things that happened to him, but for the unimaginable task in front of him.
The other thing that actually really bothered me about the movie is the role of Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson), the love interest of Brad Jr. He meets her in the beginning, is passionately in love with her and ultimately decides against the life of crime because of her. She seems strong enough on her own, but then the movie decides to hijack her character for the male protagonists’ conflicts. Because Brad Sr. wants to re-gain control over Brad Jr., so he attacks him where it hurts, which is Terry. Because she is a woman he does the obvious thing first, which is drugging and raping her.
Because that doesn’t work, he gets Brad and her shot, but guess who is the one who dies and the one who survives? Her death drives Brad to the final confrontation with his father because he now he feels all the rage and hatred he needs to overcome the fact that it is his father. Wait a second, you say, so she was raped and murdered so that his character arc progressed? That is a Woman in a Refrigerator if there ever was one, if you ask me. Which is such a shame because she is set up to be a rather interesting and strong character but in the end she just becomes a shameful plot device, the sad trope of the woman that keeps on dying so that the men become active. It is effective, for sure, but only because it is so manipulative and because we are taught to accept that woman are disposable and men are the ones who have to fight to end their conflicts. It is a disappointing choice for an otherwise intelligent movie.