The Outskirts: At Close Range

At Close Range
July 1st 2021

The Outskirts is a column by programmer Cristina Cacioppo that looks at a film that merit cult status: movies that fell into obscurity and exist outside the categorical.

A crime drama that rattles your guts and plucks your heartstrings, At Close Range (1986) features intense performances from Sean Penn, some years matured since his breakout in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), and Christopher Walken, whose easy smile just barely masks his psychopathic tendencies.

When Brad Sr. (Walken) suddenly drops in on his abandoned family, long and lean, flashing cash, Brad Jr. (Penn) sees a future for himself, a way out of a life lulled into stasis by television, beer, and weed. Brad Jr. pictures his life opening up, and in the opportunity to make fast money, a way to take care of his girlfriend Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson). He soon discovers that he doesn’t have what it takes to be a villain, but by then it’s already too late.

Walken has never been better: striking in neck-to-ankle denim, black leather vest, and immaculate mustache, he can make an offer of corn flakes sound menacing. Sean Penn is equally effective, radiating intensity while remaining innocent and searching. He has his father’s disarming laugh, but he’s also a freak kid who bites his own toenails. (Did Penn improvise that? I like to think so).

At Close Range is directed by the underrated James Foley, whose early films are all explorations of toxic men (After Dark, My Sweet; Glengarry Glen Ross; Fear), and lensed by Juan Ruiz Anchía, whose cinematography enhances the tense mood. Characters get lost in shadows or burst into light; we see Brad Sr.’s crew on their latest job operating in pitch darkness, then the bright lights of a restaurant as they reward themselves with lobster dinners. Adding a haunting layer is the score, a drawn out version of Madonna’s “Live to Tell,” the full song with lyrics hitting just as the credits begin to roll (the first credit being for the song, with Madonna’s name far bigger than anyone else’s). Sean Penn and Madonna were married the year of filming, and Foley directed several Madonna videos (“Papa Don’t Preach,” “True Blue,” “Live to Tell”).

Rounding out this dream team is a standout cast that includes Tracey Walter as Brad Sr.’s troublesome brother; Chris Penn, the real-life brother of Sean, as Brad Jr.’s naïve but plucky brother; Millie Perkins of The Diary of Anne Frank; and Eileen Ryan, the real life mother of the Penns, here as their taciturn grandmother.

At Close Range is streaming on Tubi, Pluto, Prime, and Showtime