Although shot in Tennessee, At Close Range (1986) is a film that feels authentically Pennsylvanian. So many of the interior spaces look like the spaces that I grew up in. Director James Foley selected the exterior locations with equal care, choosing spaces that evoke the hilly ground of Lancaster County. Like Witness (1984) and Mikey & Nicky (1976), At Close Range tells a story unique to its Pennsylvania locale wherein the setting and the conditions thereof are integral to that story.
Based on the true story of a rural crime kingpin and his son, both known for stealing tractors, At Close Range is a film about paternal bonds, loyalty, betrayal and violence. James Foley, although a prolific filmmaker, has always been most at home as a stylist in the crime genre of films. Unlike many filmmakers working in that genre, Foley is less concerned with realized and thwarted manifestations of masculinity, opting instead to explore the emotional and psychological tolls that crime has on individual. The antagonist, Brad Sr. (Christopher Walken), may assault the masculinity of his son (Sean Penn), but these tactics never alter Foley’s direction. Through and through the emphasis is on the impact that a father’s violence has on the love that his son has for him.
In the context of the true crime narrative Foley checks all the boxes of violent spectacle. At Close Range has murders, thefts, a rape, and plenty of intimidation. Yet, for all of these heinous actions, At Close Range never becomes a film about a single event. Brad Jr.’s disillusionment and heartbreak occurs slowly, gradually as the sins of his father mount. Where another film would position the rape of Brad Jr.’s girlfriend Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson) as the tipping point between father and son, At Close Range treats it as another episode in a career of crime.
Nicholas Kazan’s screenplay follows two intersecting stories. One is about Brad Sr. fighting to preserve his criminal organization while the other is focused on Brad Jr. looking for the romantic as well as paternal love that he has never had. When the two narratives collide there are explosive results for both individuals. At Close Range therefore becomes a kind of meditation on the similarities as well as the differences between a man and his son. At the start of the film the two do not have a relationship after all, so the story that the film tells is not one of loss but of dreams that are sought and never found or violently snatched away.
Foley directs Kazan’s script with an elegant simplicity that is stylized in its pacing more than its visuals. Foley immerses his audience in this world of rural crime and invites them to observe the inhabitants not as familiar archetypes but as unique and individual human beings. The visual stylization is derived from Film Noir and is employed exclusively at night during the commission of a crime. Foley folds his gritty crime picture beholden to William Friedkin’s thrillers of the seventies into the traditions of classic Hollywood Noir as if to suggest that one aesthetic practice is merely a continuation of the other.
However, the most stylized sequence in At Close Range owes more to music videos and shampoo adds than to Robert Siodmak or the late Friedkin. This sequence is the washing of Brad Jr. bullet riddled body. In slow motion close-ups the camera caresses the bullet holes in Sean Penn’s body as he washes them with a garden hose. As a metaphor it is a kind of baptism that signals a rebirth, a new purpose. Like Pilate, no amount of scrubbing will remove all the innocent blood from Brad Jr.’s body.
Running throughout the film, connecting every scene like glue is the instrumental version of the Madonna song “Live To Tell”. “Live To Tell”, written by composer Patrick Leonard and Madonna, is the theme of the movie. It is not until the end credits that Madonna’s vocals appear to lend Brad Jr.’s interiority a voice. Until that final moment it is the synths, keyboards and drums of Leonard’s slow, sensual composition that drive the film. It always sounds cheesy when a movie has a theme song, but in this instance it works. For all of At Close Range one waits for Madonna’s voice, eagerly anticipating her singing that cannot come until the story has been told. Here the theme song is more of an auditory coda than just a hit single tie-in.