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Video Vault – At Close Range

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This week’s venture into videos past is a film which left an indelible mark on me upon initial viewing, and was my also my first real exposure to two of modern cinema’s acting greats, Sean Penn and Christopher Walken.

On a side note, I had actually had seen Walken (previous to this film) as the peroxide blond Bond villain in Roger Moore’s last outing, but his admittedly low-key performance in that film was sadly outshone by Moore’s arched eyebrow school of acting and his penchant for quiche-making (you may not recall, but in all seriousness, Moore whips up a tasty flan-like delight he’s baked for Tanya Roberts, having driven the bad guys out of her home).

Directed by hit-and-miss filmmaker James Foley (who would undo all the good work here a year later with his dreadful Madonna “comedy” vehicle, Who’s That Girl), At Close Range is an “inspired by true-life events” tale of the bond between father and son, and how blood can still be spilled regardless of that connection.

Penn plays Brad Whitewood Jr., a none-too-bright, aimless twentysomething, who spends most of his time at the beginning of the film riding around in his car at night, smoking moodily. His world is suddenly changed (seemingly for the best at first) when his long-absentee father, Brad Whitewood, Sr. (Walken) shows up unexpectedly one day and soon after, offers Brad and his half-brother Tommy a job.

So far, so good, except Brad Sr. doesn’t exactly prove to be what you’d call a positive influencee over his wayward son, as his “job” happens to be that of the leader of a major criminal network who specialise in stealing farm machinery (the film is based in rural Pennsylvania). At first this career break goes well for Brad. He bags himself a younger, loving girlfriend (Mary Stuart Masterson – what happened to her??), but he’s soon undone by his own foolishness when he arranges a heist outside of his dad’s gang and recruits his own team, made of his friends and his impressionable younger brother. Inevitably things go wrong and when they’re all arrested by the police, Brad Sr. (believing that his sons and their friends will inform on the police about his own activities), starts taking drastic measures to ensure that this won’t happen.

Coming across this film at a time where my own perceptions of quality acting were reserved for those actors I felt could emote really well when faced with the prospect of venturing into a nearby asteroid field, the performances here were something of a revelation to me. I wasn’t really aware of both Penn’s and Walken’s careers previous to the film, and what kind of actors they were, and I also couldn’t quite put into words (at that age) what they were doing from a technical viewpoint on screen, but I remember being instantly blown away by what I was seeing.

For his part, Penn is all mumbling and brooding, and it’s interesting in seeing him play a character that may not be the sharpest tool in the box, although he’s never condescending in his approach to the part. Watching the opening credits as the camera stays on Penn as he aimlessly drives his van around in the night, and there’s definitely a noticeable hint of James Dean about him.

Bad dad Walken maintains throughout the film, that trademark chilling and deadening look in his eyes, always appearing to be on the verge of expressing a propensity towards violence, which (spoilers) he more than adequately demonstrates when it looks like his own career criminal status may be compromised. Sporting a thin ‘tache and that now famous semi-bouffant, Walken’s initial charm and acceptance of both Brad Jr. and step-son Tommy slowly gives way to distrust and finally vengeance.

For all the menace that Walken exudes, there are two scenes (which both feature Penn) that still stand out for me the most. The first is a stunning series of abstract shots towards the end, where Penn painfully removes both his clothes and boots, and hoses down his bloody, bullet-ridden body. The second is the final scene in the film, where Penn (being cross-examined in court) can’t actually physically bring himself to confirm to the court that Walken is his father. It’s an acting masterclass in buttoned down emotions, as we see his facial expressions run though the shame, embarrassment and anger that that disclosure holds for him. Even more impressively, all this is told in the one long static shot. No need to move the camera here. Penn’s captivating performance doesn’t need any help.

It’s not only the two leads who lend a weighty presence to proceeding here, and for a film riddled with noticeable character actors of the day (LA Confidential’s David Strathairn crops up as a member of Walken’s gang) it’s Penn’s band of like-minded friends which reads like a who’s who of young 80’s up-and-coming actors (all of whom, incidentally, had roles in other film favourites from that decade). Kiefer Sutherland is there, alongside Crispin Glover, displaying similar tics to that of George McFly, but this time on the wrong side of quirky (keep in mind this was also before I’d seen him in River’s Edge). Penn’s late brother Chris plays his screen sibling here and he too was familiar to me at the time, having played the role of Kevin Bacon’s rhythm-deprived best mate in Footloose. Steven Geoffreys (Freight Night’s Evil Ed) is the final member of the group. Geoffreys (a uniquely-looking character and always cast as a weirdo) is another who seems to have dropped off the face of the planet. I actually looked him up on IMDB prior to writing this, and to my shock, I discovered that he’s now a fully-fledged gay porn star, with hundreds of roles under his belt (so to speak).

At Close Range is still a film I like to revisit at least once a year, and while perhaps some of the other films from my youth which I still admire today have a throwaway quality to them, this still manages to have the same power over me as the very first time I popped it into the top of the family Ferguson Videostar all those many years back.

Title: Video Vault – At Close Range
Reviewed by Adam Lowes on Oct 4
Rating: