“I remember being absolutely fearless because I was too young to know any better. I had no idea, I had never tasted failure — or pressure from the studio. You know, that film got made because Sean was very hot, Sean wanted me to direct it, and because he and I were so simpatico, we could do whatever we wanted because we held the power. I never appreciated that at the time, how important that was, so we literally did whatever we wanted and tried crazy things and didn’t care what other people thought — we didn’t have to care what other people thought.” James Foley interviewed by Walter Chaw for Film Freak Central, April 2003
At Close Range (1986)
Directed by James Foley
Screenplay by Nicholas Kazan, story by Elliott Lewitt and Nicholas Kazan
Produced by Elliott Lewitt, Don Guest
If the songwriting of Bruce Springsteen could conjure moving images, the result would be something very similar to At Close Range. Though The Boss didn’t supply any music for the soundtrack, echoes of “Thunder Road” or “Darkness on the Edge of Town” with their engines of discontented youth reverberate through this film, siphoned into a crime story and injected by an ensemble cast that makes a case for being one of the greatest ever assembled. Somewhere in the seemingly lawless farmland of Pennsylvania in 1978, Brad Whitewood Jr. (Sean Penn) trucks into town to pick up his knucklehead brother Tommy (Christopher Penn). Brad summons the guts to talk to a girl named Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson) hanging out in the square. Lacking a job or even reliable wheels, he ultimately convinces the 16-year-old to light out west with him for a better life together.
Brad Jr. seeks out his absentee father Brad Whitewood Sr. (Christopher Walken), who local gossip has it is a thief. Brad Sr. introduces the boy to his woman (Candy Clark), as well as the uncles (R.D. Call, J.C. Quinn) and the epileptic (David Straithairn) he disappears with in the dead of night. Wary of Brad Jr. getting mixed up in the schemes of his dim witted Uncle Patch (Tracey Walter), Brad Sr. gives his son a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle and sends him back to his mother (Millie Perkins). Seeking respect and some extra cash, Brad Jr. and Tommy gather their friends (Crispin Glover, Stephen Geoffreys, Kiefer Sutherland) and start stealing tractors. Brad Jr. compels his father to show him the ropes, but sees more than he bargained for one night and breaks away from his dad. When his son is arrested, the bonds of family buckle and Brad Sr’s self-preservation kicks in.
In August 1978, producer Elliott Lewitt came across an account in the Philadelphia Inquirer of two teenagers — a federal witness and his 15-year-old girlfriend — who’d been riddled with bullets in rural Chester County. Details emerged that the boy’s father Bruce Johnston Sr. was patriarch of family notorious for stealing tractors and anything else that wasn’t moving. Seeing potential for a modern day Greek tragedy, Lewitt hired Nicholas Kazan to adapt a screenplay based on these events. Titled At Close Range, Kazan’s script became one nearly every executive in Hollywood wanted to see made but none were willing to bankroll. That changed in 1985 when Sean Penn was being heralded as the most talented young actor in movies. Penn had befriended USC Film School grad James Foley and a script both men loved was At Close Range. Hemdale Film Corporation agreed to finance the project with Orion Pictures handling distribution.
Kazan let it be known how displeased he was with Foley’s work, cutting scenes the scribe felt pivotal to the plot, redacting the humor and giving the picture a visual sheen Kazan thought undermined its reality. It’ll never be known how great At Close Range might have been, but in Foley’s defense, what’s on screen is remarkable. Cast by Risa Bramon and Billy Hopkins, the ensemble is extraordinary and in his sophomore feature, Foley knew to let his actors act. The energy harnessed by Sean Penn, his brother Chris and their mother Eileen Ryan (playing the boys’ grandma) is palpable, while Walken and Masterson and the great Tracey Walter mesmerize in every moment of their screen time. The lightning by Juan Ruiz Anchia bleeds shadow, but in a fresh approach, this is film noir set knee deep in the boondocks. Madonna co-wrote and performed the ubiquitous theme song “Live To Tell”, which materializes throughout the film as its own atmospheric effect.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 8,017 users: 71% for At Close Range
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: N/A
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