At Close Range

(James Foley, USA, 1986)


The 1980s are usually painted as a return to conventional, ideologically reassuring narrative formats within American cinema after the freewheeling, politically contestatory experiments of the ‘70s. But the legacy of Robert Altman and others survived in an unexpected place: the teen movie genre, upon which At Close Range is an especially dramatic, even Gothic variation (the true-life story from the mid ‘70s on which the film is quite closely based was described by Time magazine as “Pennsylvania Gothic”).


Many actors familiar from the teen comedies and romances of the early ‘80s (Sean & Christopher Penn, Mary Stuart Masterson, Crispin Glover, Kiefer Sutherland) appear, albeit in a starkly realist, low-life context; Foley himself had previously made the classic teen rebel story Reckless  (1984), and went on to make the crazy teen thriller Fear  (1996).


Although At Close Range builds an impressive, noirish atmosphere of escalating (frequently nocturnal) dread, Foley’s primary concern is scarcely to tell a tight, driving story: it is well over an hour before the first major violent incident occurs.


Rather, the film – superbly written by Nicholas Kazan (and revisiting elements he first dramatised in the script for his father Elia Kazan’s The Visitors [1972]) – focuses on creating a mood (alternately languorous and elliptical), describing a milieu, and exploring the theme of a malignant family unit, in which otherwise admirable codes of honour, loyalty and closeness have become evil and ultimately self-destructive over time.


It’s a bleak tale. Brad Jr (Sean Penn) lives with his brother Tommy (Christopher Penn), mother Julie (Millie Perkins) and grandmother (Eileen Ryan). A tough but deeply feeling teenager, Brad begins a tender relationship with a local girl, Terry (Masterson). After clashing with Julie’s boyfriend, Brad Jr leaves home and seeks out his alluring criminal father, Brad Sr (Walken), who leads a gang of family members and associates.


Alternately paternal and dismissive, Brad Sr draws in and manipulates Brad Jr and Tommy, gradually initiating them into the code of his world. As Brad Jr’s bond with Terry grows, her presence disturbs Brad Sr’s gang. This darkest of fathers becomes increasingly paranoiac and violent, meting out retribution (either at his own hand, or by arranging the intervention of others) in all directions – even upon those closest to him. The film explores the painful, even deadly paradoxes of “blood ties” in such a criminal milieu.


As Foley remarked during production, the material of the true story was so bleak that it proved difficult to fix on anything positive or redemptive in it. The one spark of hope or integrity is provided by Brad Jr and his final rejection of the father’s control. Penn brings a poignant mix of brutishness and sensitivity to this role.


Richly textured (Juan Ruiz Anchía’s often free-form cinematography is remarkable), At Close Range is, in retrospect, an extraordinarily daring film in style as in content. It harks back to the severe narrative experiments of Monte Hellman (a tribute signalled by the presence of Millie Perkins), and anticipates the 1990s work of Larry Clark in the USA, as well as Claire Denis in France. Even the constant reworking of a musical motif associated with Madonna’s pop hit “Live to Tell” acquires a minimalistic force here, in concert with all the other stylistic traits.


Although overlooked in its day (partly due to the collapse of the Hemdale company, which also produced the similarly dark and moody teen drama River’s Edge [1986]), At Close Range now rates as Foley’s finest work.

MORE Foley: The Chamber, The Corruptor, Glengarry Glen Ross

© Adrian Martin 2008

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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