At Close Range bombed when it came out in the spring of 1986. Despite a stellar cast (which looks even better in hindsight), a No. 1 hit song by Madonna on its soundtrack and a taut, gritty story, it garnered less than $2.5 million in box-office receipts.
Maybe the story was too taut and gritty. This is a downcast look at blue-collar crime and teenage tedium. It’s punctuated by a nasty rape scene and an attempted filicide. So we shouldn’t be surprised that filmgoers at the time preferred more escapist fare (both Top Gun and Police Academy 3: Back in Training came out within a month).
A quarter-century later, At Close Range deserves another chance.
For one, it’s worth seeing Sean Penn back when he was drawing from James Dean (Rebel Without a Cause) and Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront) to portray the angry but vulnerable bad boy. And any fan of gangster movies will delight in watching Christopher Walken give one of his best performances as a cold, cunning, working-class psycho killer. Walken is Fagan in a pompadour, exuding charm in one scene, menace in the next. We’ll rank his work here with his performances in King of New York and True Romance.
Beyond all that, there’s a fine script written by Nicholas Kazan (the son of great director Elia Kazan) and the direction of James Foley, who went on to make Glengarry Glen Ross.
The movie focuses on 1970s life in the small towns and farmlands about 30 miles west of Philadelphia. Nothing much happens there, which is why teenager Brad Whitewood Jr. (Sean Penn) spends his time smoking pot and getting into small-time trouble. Young Brad lives with his half-brother (played by Penn’s real-life brother Chris Penn), his mom and grandmother in a shotgun shack where the front yard is dotted with jalopies and the two women spend their nights staring at TV like zombies.
It’s all pretty depressing. So when long-gone father Brad Sr. turns up with a Mustang, a devious smile and a roll of $100 bills, well, who can blame the kid for being intoxicated?
Turns out that Dad is the leader of a rural band of outlaws leading a modern-day Bonnie-and-Clyde life. They rob and pilfer (everything from money to tractors to antique guns), and then they party hard. Young Brad is dazzled by the excitement and the promise of more wealth than any honest job could bring, so he becomes an apprentice thief in the gang.
At the same time, he falls for a pretty young thing (Mary Stuart Masterson) whose desperation to escape her family’s farm prompts her to ignore Brad Jr.’s increasingly criminal behavior.
It’s all going swimmingly for our boy. He even starts up his own crew, known as the Kiddy Gang, which steals farm equipment in the night and passes it up to Brad Sr.’s operation. Make sure, by the way, to take notice of the young actors in the gang, a few of whom went on to greater fame.
And then, of course, things turn. Brad Jr. discovers the truly evil nature of his father and tries to pull away. Soon afterward, the Kiddy Gang is busted. Convinced that the frightened punks are going to blab to the cops, Brad Sr. starts a campaign that uses rape and murder to try to shut them up.
And because any worthy drama requires a final showdown, one occurs between father and son. We don’t want to give away the details, but depending on your views on vengeance, you will find yourself frustrated or refreshed by that confrontation.
At Close Range is based on the true story of Pennsylvania’s Johnston Gang, a notorious ring led by Bruce Johnston Sr. and his two brothers in the 1960s and ’70s. The three men were convicted of murder in 1981. In 2009, Bruce Mowday, a local reporter who covered that trial, wrote a well-reviewed book called Jailing the Johnston Gang: Bringing Serial Murderers to Justice. We suggest you see the film before reading the book.
HIT: Watching this movie is like scouting a great team of college athletes about to turn pro. Sean Penn was 24 when At Close Range was filmed; Chris Penn was 19. Add Masterson (19), Kiefer Sutherland (18) and Crispin Glover (21) and you’ve got a young lineup that rivals the Brat Pack.
MISS: The song in the closing credits—Madonna’s “Live to Tell”—sure sounds dated a quarter-century later. But we could live with that. What becomes downright annoying is that sections of that song are cut up, remixed and milked throughout the movie. Music supervisor Budd Carr created one of cinema’s lamest soundtracks by adding a drum machine, stretching out chords and cranking up the Yamaha synthesizer again . . . and again . . . and again.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “It’s Walken’s Oscar-caliber performance that makes the movie. Not since Robert Mitchum in 1955’s The Night of the Hunter has there been such a convincing demon prowling the screen. At Close Range should come with a warning label: movie dynamite.”—Peter Travers, People
PIVOTAL SCENE: Young Brad wants to be just like dad—robbing and drinking and driving souped-up hotrods. After a job one night, he joins Brad Sr. and the gang as they celebrate with steak and beers. Life seems fun.
At the restaurant, however, they spot a low-level associate gabbing to a plainclothes officer. Afterward, they take the stool pigeon for a ride, plying him with whiskey and peppering him with questions about what he told the cop. The poor sap assures them he revealed nothing, but they cannot believe him.
He is driven out to the countryside. As Brad Jr. stays by the car and watches, his dad and gang member Dickie (R. D. Call), lead the reeling man into a pond. He is too drunk to know what’s coming and too weak to resist. Dickie pushes the snitch down, holding his head underwater with one hand as he calmly lights a cigarette with the other.
As Brad Jr. stares in horror, Brad Sr. gazes up at his son. He places one finger in front of his mouth—a gesture that says, “Tell no one.” There are no words. The lesson is obvious.
In that moment, Brad Jr. realizes that his father’s evil extends far beyond any act that he could commit himself. He needs to get away. “They’re no good,” he tells his brother when he returns home. “They’re bad people.”
GOOF: We’re still curious why a movie that’s supposed to take place in Pennsylvania features a town square boasting a Confederate soldier memorial and a First Tennessee Bank.
CASTING CALL: Robert De Niro turned down the role of Brad Whitewood Sr., reportedly because he felt the character was too dark. Too dark for De Niro? How is that possible?
VIOLENCE LEVEL: The really brutal stuff is largely implied or happens offscreen.
REALITY CHECK: Shot in the face with buckshot by an armed watchman, Brad Jr. sustains some deep and nasty wounds. But two scenes later—the equivalent of two days in the story—the wounds have completely healed.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Chris and Sean Penn are not the only relatives in this cast. Their real-life mother, Eileen Ryan, plays their grandmother.
BEST LINE: “Most people who drive through here see farms, houses and fields and shit. I see money. I see things, everything with my name writ’ on it.”—Brad Whitewood Sr., explaining his life philosophy while cruising through rural Chester County.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Tony, the epileptic gang member, is played by taciturn David Strathairn. You may recognize him from L.A. Confidential or The Bourne Ultimatum. Perhaps you recall him as the teacher who had a furtive romp with Carmela in Season Five of The Sopranos. But we believe Straithairn’s best role was as disgraced Black Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte in Eight Men Out.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Rumble Fish, a 1983 film about a troubled street thug (Matt Dillon) trying to live up to the reputation of his older brother (Mickey Rourke). Dennis Hopper plays the boys’ father, and Chris Penn has a small role.
BODY COUNT: Five.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”