James Foley has had a peculiar career as a director. His most recent ventures to date are the second and third instalments in the Fifty Shades trilogy, and prior to those, he hadn’t made a film since 2007’s abysmal Halle Berry vehicle Perfect Stranger, receding through the 1990’s with very average fare such as the rather tedious cop-bribed-by gangsters flick The Corruptor (imaginative titling), silly psycho-Wahlberg thriller Fear, and The Chamber, a generic, Grisham-inspired courtroom drama that utterly wasted the brilliance of Gene Hackman. It’s a bizarre track record for the man who gave the world Glengarry Glen Ross, arguably the greatest film of 1992 and definitely the most superior adaptation of any of potty-mouthed Chicagoan David Mamet’s body of work. But hey, what can you do, he was certainly on the road to somewhere at one point.
Six years prior to Glengarry, he directed 1986’s At Close Range, a pitch-black, unforgiving portrait of Mid-Atlantic organised crime, family dysfunction, teenage malaise and first love. It is made all the more harrowing by the fact that is inspired by true events. In rural Pennsylvania during the 1970’s, Bruce Johnston Sr. operated a notoriously elusive and lucrative burglary ring, until his eldest son, Bruce Jr., asked that he and some close buddies be given a taste of the action. When some of the kiddie gang were apprehended, Bruce Sr.’s paranoia started to take hold, and things got bad. Very, very bad. Events made national headlines, and the inappropriately meagre number of people to have seen the film are still unsurprisingly stunned to learn that it all didn’t spring from the imagination of some thoroughly twisted crime novelist.
Commuted to screen, the tale opens with Sean Penn (in his pre-loudmouth heartthrob heyday) as Brad Whitewood Jr., a feckless, unemployed smart-ass in his late teens, living below the poverty line in a squalid farmland house with his mother, grandmother and impressionable younger brother Tommy (Chris Penn, Sean’s real-life sibling, in a wonderful touch). Brad is your standard juvenile delinquent, hassling middle-aged suits to buy him beers outside of convenience stores (when he isn’t stealing four-packs from his mother’s boyfriend right out of the fridge), getting stoned, trying to make repairs to his crappy truck, and hitting downtown to people-watch and introspect in the way that only a relentlessly bored, angsty adolescent can.
Brad’s road to nowhere eventually begins to look up as he starts courting Terri (played with a brilliant coyness and warmth by Mary Stuart Masterson), a relatively mature and studious 16 year old high-schooler who should probably know better than to get entangled with him, but young’uns are curious. He is cocky and reckless, but he’s also strangely likeable, he strikes out for his loved ones, and his swagger is not without a moral code and genuine tenderness, so his appeal to her is fairly fathomable. Not long after this touching first encounter, the film introduces its alluring and terrifying centrepiece, one Bradley Whitewood Sr.
In what is possibly his most underappreciated performance, Christopher Walken blazes an electric trail across the screen as the estranged father of Brad Jr. & Tommy, a hyper-confident, ostensibly laid back enigma of a man, the boys only vaguely aware of his reputation as a well-connected career criminal. He has all of the creature comforts that a man could want, buying fresh-off-the-line cars on the fly, treating himself and his cronies to rowdy nights at the bar and expensive meals out, and canoodling with whichever woman happens to take his fancy. He shows up sporadically to give pity-money to their mother, and begins to charismatically ingratiate himself with them and their similarly apathetic crew of obnoxious teen friends. As far as the brothers are concerned, a poor life in the sticks doesn’t matter all that much when you effectively have the most awesome dad in the world.
The kids start to bond with their new inappropriate adult with boundless enthusiasm, particularly Brad Jr. His father takes him under his wing, gives him advice on what to steal, how to steal it, what kind of network you need to keep things out of sight yet also pumping out those fine green bills continuously, even advice on cars and women. Junior has the blinkers on when it comes to recognising that he is being groomed and transformed as a duplicate heir, Senior having no real interest beyond moulding him and ensuring that he conforms to his father’s attitudes, beliefs and professional philosophy. (Watch out for those narcissistic sociopaths, folks, they have a knack for seeming like the coolest cat on the block). After a few heists, both with his father’s central crew and a rag-tag group of squirts he has assembled with Tommy, Brad Jr. fouls up on a crucial job and spends the night in a cell. Unfortunately for all constituents, Big Brad’s easy-going, mischievous manner is merely the pragmatic facade of a completely untrusting, malicious control freak, and there are no limits for the horrors that are to come, lest he lose his own liberty and empire.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its cinematography, that grainy 35 mm, also used in another unforgivably overlooked 80’s crime classic, Thief (Michael Mann’s debut masterpiece), giving it the desolate, autumnal sheen that perfectly conveys the morally bankrupt sordidness of the world these characters inhabit. Like that film, At Close Range is neither a caper nor a thriller, but a sombre study of the inevitable repercussions of naive, headstrong individuals climbing into bed with people who truly have hearts of ice. Walken’s distinctively strange vocal delivery is used to excellent effect here, he begins to clip his sentences more slowly and let his enunciation become more lazy when he is in predatory mode, a tell that, along with his eyes growing ever vacant of any hint of emotion, conveys the intensity of a cobra about to strike.
In conjunction with starring alongside his younger brother, Penn’s then-wife Madonna had been asked to provide the soundtrack, which culminated in her powerful synth-driven ballad, ”Live To Tell”, being used as the movie’s principal musical motif, the lyrics conveying cynicism, betrayal and mistrust, which couldn’t be more fitting if it tried.
In summary, this is an extraordinarily understated, emotionally draining crime film, coordinating its themes of familial estrangement, pathological selfishness, teen blues and self-honour into a highly effective and disturbing piece. Boasting a wonderful cast, including George McFly-cum-resident Hollywood weirdo Crispin Glover and a baby-faced Keifer Sutherland, it will be unlikely to lift your spirits or have you hankering for that popcorn, but if you want a hard-hitting powerhouse of a film to challenge and give you pause, look no further.