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REVIEWS: BRITISH ROMP, AMERICAN TRAGEDY : ‘At Close Range’ Strays and Only Grazes the Target

Times Film Critic

The raw stuff of “At Close Range” (Bruin, Chinese Theatre) is classically and grotesquely American, with an inexorable pull. It should have made a great movie, the kind that burns itself into your consciousness, a “Badlands,” a “Thieves Like Us,” an “In Cold Blood.” The writing and the sheer presence of many of its actors very nearly does just that.

But if ever a movie needed a modest, straight-ahead style to its telling, it’s this one. And while James Foley’s direction (and strong, iconoclastic casting) has resulted in a handful of indelible performances, he can’t get out of his own way when it comes to how he tells his story.

Foley seems determined to exhaust the handbook of directorial “wizardry” with the sort of hardware that overloaded “Reckless,” his first film: Subjective semi-slow motion, brooding lighting, motes of dust so thick you could walk up them, nighttime shots of a rural Pennsylvania town with streets that seem to be paved with patent leather. If he’d just let Nicholas Kazan’s script stand by itself, it would be stunning enough. (It’s a true story, adapted by Kazan and Elliott Lewitt from a 1978 headline case that took place in bucolic Franklin, Pa. )

They call it “Wyeth country,” this fertile, rolling farmland, for good and sufficient reason. But “At Close Range” is about the underbelly of the idyll, where the best these drop-out dopester high schoolers can hope for is a steady job fixin’ Chevies for $10 an hour, when what they want are hot, fast cars and easy money.

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The film makers’ portrait of this breeding ground for dumb crime is as appealing as a mosquito-filled sump: a run-down, whitewashed clapboard house where the television is never off and the apathy is as thick as the cigarette smoke. There, mother (Millie Perkins, still beautiful enough to attract exactly the wrong kind of man) and grandmother (Eileen Ryan) try, ineffectively, to control two sons, Brad Jr. (Sean Penn) and Tommy (Christopher Penn), his younger half-brother. A revolving cast of live-in boyfriends haven’t improved family relations.

As though by some carny conjurer’s trick, Brad Whitewood Sr. (Christopher Walken), a preening charmer, appears in the living room one afternoon, drops off a few hundreds for his ex-wife, takes a first look at Brad Jr. since infancy and is gone again. One look is all young Brad needs to search him out, to adopt a little of that swagger as his birthright, to follow his father into the family business--stealing.

With brilliant intensity, Penn poises this kid on a knife edge. A new, trusting 16-year-old girlfriend (the fine Mary Stuart Masterson of “Heaven Help Us”) from a neighboring farm only steps up his need for money, for a way out of his family’s bleakness. But even though Brad Jr. is unquestioned head of his own downy-faced gang, as he hangs out with them he discovers that his father’s poker-faced crew of “uncles” play in an entirely different league: tractor thievery, case-lot hijacking and casual, efficient murder.

Boyhood and manhood; the pull of a dangerous father, a passively seductive stepmother (Candy Clark in a role that feels drastically trimmed); the sweet demands of a girlfriend; a gang who looks to him as a cool leader. And two worlds of crime, minor and very major indeed, full of scuzzy informers and the interest of the FBI and a grand jury. It’s a hot, horrifying, ineluctable saga of an American criminal family--except that half of the equation is struggling, as if in a nightmare of drowning, to come up to the good air at the surface.

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Penn and Walken play it to the hilt. After “The Falcon and the Snowman’s” rodent-like twerp, Penn has again changed himself utterly. He looks now like a true Midwestern farm kid, with a solid build and an added 30 pounds of pugnacity. But as he poises between his two worlds, Penn is as sensitive as a dowsing rod, quivering, hesitant, finally resolved, in an ending that might come out of Greek tragedy.

Although he and Penn are a physical match as a young father and grown son, Walken is actually an odd choice for this Big Daddy of crime. He makes him silkily evil, not commanding, a rotting golden boy with a short fuse. It’s a fevered, overripe performance, although in the context of this production it hardly shows.

The film (MPAA-rated R: Violence, language, sexual situations) is full of marvelous actors. The script full of amazing moments: the constant irony of these kids, playing at crime, and their actual innocence in the face of the real thing--horrified when Brad Sr. lays a pistol on the table during lunch in a genteel lunchroom. Among the actors there’s the silently embittered Grandma with her great Mary Astor profile, played by Eileen Ryan, the Penn boys’ real-life mother. Brad Sr.'s terrifying crew includes Tracey Walter as the long-haired, repellent Patch; R. D. Call as the bearded brother, Dickie; J. C. Quinn as the beefy Boyd.

Director Foley unquestionably has an empathy with actors; if he could scale down his hyperactive style he might become a director to watch, not to watch out for.

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