For Walken and Penn die-hards only: At Close Range (James Foley, 1986)

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After seeing Heaven’s Gate last year, I decided that I needed more Christopher Walken in my life. The ensuing streak of bad luck I had with that goal didn’t end until I watched Seven Psychopaths some months later.

It was difficult to make up my mind about which Walken film to order from Quickflix, but I thought I’d go with one that didn’t destroy Michael Cimino’s career and watch The Deer Hunter, which I’d only seen half of, ten years ago. Once the DVD arrived, however, I had to face the fact that sitting through The Deer Hunter was going to be kind of upsetting. I put it off and put It off, and a couple of weeks later we had a weekend of storms so heavy that it wasn’t completely safe to go outside. Stuck at home with limited viewing options, I figured that it was now or never for The Deer Hunter. Then the disc wouldn’t play. It had a crack in it. I chucked the movie back in a mailbox once the rain let up.

Some time after, I ordered At Close Range, having heard that it features an underrated performance from Walken. The disc went missing in the mail. Quickflix ignored my first email about this, so I didn’t get a replacement for another couple of weeks. This movie was making me mad already, and it wouldn’t stop there, either.

At Close Range stars Sean Penn as Brad Jr, a teenager living in a backwoods town who tries to strengthen his relationship with his distant and mysterious father, Brad Sr (Walken), who’s the head of a local criminal gang. Mary Stuart Masterson is Penn’s girlfriend, Chris Penn is his brother, and Crispin Glover is in there being weird with terrible hair.

After finally watching it, I can only recommend At Close Range to people who have a particular liking for how Sean Penn looked in 1986. The movie has lots of long, lingering shots of his face and body. His looks seem to be a shorthand for why we’re supposed to like Brad Jr, since he doesn’t talk much and Penn only gives the slightest impression that there’s anything going on in his head. I was bemused that Brad Jr wants to cut ties with Brad Sr after finding out that his dad, surprise surprise, sometimes has people killed. Brad Jr would have to be a total idiot not to have at least guessed this, and he doesn’t seem like it would bother him a great deal anyway.

There’s very little plot to this movie, and it’s slowed even further by pretentious visuals. Nondescript synth music accompanies close-ups of body parts moving. Brad Jr’s dumb buddies are given fun-filled, sunset-lit montages. Brad Sr contributes some lens flare by turning around to direct the torch he’s holding straight into the camera. The film ends with a zoom into a grainy freeze frame of Brad Jr’s anguished face. Whatever Foley was going for, the result ends up being cheesy, and not in an enjoyable way.

Is Walken scary in this film? Sure, and not just because of the moustache. He manages this while being fairly understated in comparison to his more famous roles. But unless you’re really, really interested in him, or like Sean Penn for some reason I can’t relate to, At Close Range is just a waste of time.

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