The title for At Close Range may be a pretty big misnomer (despite my immediate assumptions, it is not a corny action movie or spy flick—though that didn’t stop me from going in expecting one of those things anyway), but ironically enough, it may actually be the most fitting one for a film of this subject matter. It is based off a startling true story of crime and violence, but also one of family, and the impact that parents can have upon their children. This may not make it sound too far from something like The Godfather, but trust me, it actually is.
Even so, despite the massive talent involved (a young Christopher Walken, a really young Sean Penn) and its admirable willingness to stick to most of the actual details of the matter [NOTE: HEAVY SPOILERS IN LINKED ARTICLE] (I’ll get to what didn’t happen—and what’s really too implausible to be true anyway—later), if it weren’t for my dad’s interest in seeing it again, I might not have even bothered with this film at all, both because of that title and its real obscurity (in fact, prior to him bringing it up a few days ago, I hadn’t even heard of it at all). However, I’m ultimately glad I saw it, despite there being a number of things ultimately holding it back from greatness. In some ways, though, it almost gets there. Almost.
The film opens with an extended shot of Brad Whitewood Jr.* (Penn), a reckless out-of-work teen who often has nothing better to do than get cheap booze for his equally young friends. After his snarky attitude towards his mother’s boyfriend literally gets him thrown out of the house, though, he comes across Brad Whitewood Sr. (Walken): his father, and a career criminal whose leadership over his family’s gang has gotten him loads of stolen money. Brad Sr. really seems to see something in Brad Jr., both as a talented young hoodlum and a loving son, and has him start his own gang with his brother Tommy (Chris Penn—Sean Penn’s brother), which fences their stolen goods through Brad Sr’s large criminal network.
Over time, however, Brad Sr. reveals himself to be quite an evil person, one who coldly drowns potential snitches in a lake without even a second thought. He never even shows any real affection towards Brad Jr., but the growing romance the adolescent robber shares with a nice girl named Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson) is presumably enough for him to overlook that. At least, until everything finally comes crashing down, and Brad Sr. finally snaps.
Much like the surprisingly underrated gangster drama Donnie Brasco (also based off a true story, albeit a slightly different one), all of this is told in a very slow, steady, and occasionally even uneventful manner. Unlike Donnie Brasco, however, the general presentation of At Close Range is far more theatrical and sentimental, complete with cheesy, repetitive ‘80s-synthesizer music playing throughout.
Needless to say, this doesn’t really fit the late-’70s atmosphere at all, and slightly leavens the sense of unflashy realism that otherwise pervades the film. I know how unfair it is to put such a minor crime drama up against Scorsese, but the way he used music in something like Goodfellas wasn’t just far more period-accurate, but also less generic and dated. It helped make such a sprawling gangster flick truly timeless, something that I unfortunately can’t use to describe At Close Range.
There are other flaws to be found within the film as well**. In one scene, Brad Jr. gets shot in the face by an angry farmer and, after discovering that he has nowhere else to go, heads over to Terry’s place to get the wound patched up. Tell me if I’m wrong here, but I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know anything about his criminal activities at that point, so her cleaning up the large bullet wound on his cheek without asking a single question isn’t very believable. And no, I can’t find anything saying that actually happened in real life, so it’s not even like Nicolas Kazan (the film’s screenwriter) put such a moment in there to be more accurate to that.
Despite these glaring issues, At Close Range still holds together pretty well, largely due to the fully committed performances from Penn (both Sean and Chris) and Walken, and a number of powerful moments that don’t try masking the real-life story’s tough, gritty nature (even if the film doesn’t really earn its R rating until its final stretch, which slightly lessens some of the violence’s impact). Even if it’s not anything I’d call essential, true crime fans would probably be satisfied seeking it out for themselves.
*In real life, Brad Sr.’s and Brad Jr.’s names were respectively Bruce Johnston Sr. and Bruce Johnston Jr., though the latter person had the nickname “Little Bruce” (obviously changed to “Little Brad” in the movie).
**[HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD] And on that note, I’d like to point out this: once Brad Sr. starts thinking that Brad Jr., who’s now in jail after attempting to steal a bunch of tractors with his buddies, might leak important information to Terry (who he thinks is a “big mouth”), he gets her drunk and stoned, takes her to an anonymous motel room and rapes her in an effort to break up their relationship. Although the camera cuts away before anything really graphic is shown, the moment is still shocking and impactful nevertheless (and it also happened in real life)… but for some reason, it’s somehow never mentioned again.
Sure, Terry inaudibly talking to Brad Jr. through a prison phone afterwards probably implies that she told him about it, but when Brad Jr. finally confronts Brad Sr. with a gun at the film’s climax (which, by the way, didn’t actually happen in real life: in fact, Brad Jr. was already at Terry’s house when they both got ambushed and repeatedly shot—and, in Terry’s case, even killed—by Brad’s uncles, so he just got in there and called the police), he never brings it up once. Not. Even. Once.
I know how nitpicky and overly critical this may make me seem, but despite really wanting to get swept up in the raw emotion of this scene, this just distracted me so much that I couldn’t help getting taken out of it. I just couldn’t. [END SPOILERS]