Monday, April 6, 2009

"Boy Ain't Got The Life Expectancy of a Housefly!"

I'll happily walk out on a limb and state that this is Christopher Walken's best film.

His portrayal of a crime patriarch in rural Tennessee, who seduces his son (played by Sean Penn) into the business, is without peer.

I'll happily put this on my Top 10 Films of All Time, too.

It is a masterpiece. No, fuck it!, it's a perfect film.

Director James Foley had made one film (a decent one) before this -- the '84 Reckless with Daryl Hanna and Aidan Quinn. It was a nihilistic, visually provocative piece of work that lacked substance.

Beautifully shot by Michael Ballhaus, and scored to perfection by Thomas Newman, it tanked and vanished.

Nicholas Kazan, the son of Eli, wrote the Academy Award-winning -award Francis, the Francis Farmer pic, before tackling the screenplay adaptation of the true life story of At Close Range ('86).

He was no one trick pony. He also wrote the terrific Barbet Schroeder film, Reversal of Fortune ('90), another interpretation of a true story.

The screenplay is a college course in subtext and understatement.

So is the film's direction.

Its theme of the corruption of the innocent is played out within a torn familial structure.

"Tommy, right?"

Brad Whitewood Snr. (Walken) walks, literally, back into the lives of his sons, Brad Jnr. ("Little Brad") and Tommy, played respectively by the real life Penn brothers Sean and the late Christopher.

"Big Brad" personifies an ideal that the boys respond to, and they eagerly embrace him as their (Perverse) father -- initially, at least.


Brad Snr. is already part of an established criminal "family", and is "carrying" his incompetent, distracted brother, played with exceptional conviction by Tracey Walter. Not surprisingly, Little Brad's acceptance into group, who are knitted together by shared, terrible secrets, is not without its challenges.

"Never say nothing against the family"

"You're brother's out stealing hub caps!"

But Brad Snr. sees to it that Little Brad's initiation into the group is smooth, and positions him for permanence within it.

But when Big Brad threatens to kill Lester (Jake Dengel), an ex-member of the group who is known to associate with police...

"Your father's got a very interesting history"

Little Brad's moral antenna is raised, and he begins a process of mental extrication from his father.

"Boy ain't got the life expectancy of a housefly"

"I thought you had something -- between the legs!"

Although Brad Jnr. launches his own criminal enterprise with several of his clueless friends, it is the behavior of his girlfriend (Mary Stuart Masterson) towards Brad Snr. and his group that carves a crack in the relationship.

"All they got is a cunt"

After Brad Jnr. and his friends are arrested for tractor theft, Brad Snr. becomes paranoid that one of them will turn state witness against his criminal enterprise.

Brad Snr.'s paranoia boils over and he rapes Masterson in an extraordinary sequence.

"You ain't gonna see my son!"

Other members of the kiddie gang are not so "lucky".

"Tommy, if you was to go before the Grand Jury, what would you tell them?"



As an examination of the brittle structure of a criminal organization, At Close Range is hard to beat.

As a study of the toll a life of crime can take on an individual, it is without peer.

Brad. Snr. saves the final outrage for his son.

In one brilliant sequence after another, the destruction of family and business is depicted in searing cinematic terms.

The cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia, with its foggy, light-blasted corners, darkened dens of vice, and deceptively sun-drenched exteriors, conveys a world where death and betrayal hover over its players like a jet in a holding pattern.

"Is this the 'family gun', Dad?"

The score, courtesy of Patrick Leonard, is one of the most haunting and beautiful to ever inhabit nine thousand feet of film.

That is not on CD is tragic.

Sean Penn, as usual, is incredible, and can add this to a mighty bow that sags with the combined weight of Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Bad Boys, Racing With The Moon, Carlito's Way, Milk, and The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

James Foley has never made anything else quite as unique and distinctive as At Close Range, but he certainly gave it the old college try with the excellent Glengarry Glen Ross ('92), another look at the breakdown of hope, and the folly of reckless ambition.


  1. As a fan of Glengarry Glen Ross, I will definitely have to give At Close Range a shot - particularly since you would put it in your Top Ten Films of All Time!

  2. tb -- you won't be disappointed. I can watch this over and over again. It is an experience, not just a movie.

  3. Spot on Phantom. Been wondering if you'd share your view of this film here...

    Amazing film, and under rated 80's classic.

    Walken: "Sorry shack o' shit".

    See you in Hell A soon!