A rural district of Pennsylvania in 1978, and having recently left high school Brad Whitewood Jr (Sean Penn) is in serious need of something to do with his life. One night while out driving aimlessly, he ends up at the town square and catches sight of a girl there who immediately attracts him. She is Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson), sixteen and still at school, but all Brad knows is that he wants to impress her so when he pulls up beside his brother and his friend to hear that some guy has taken their money but failed to buy them the liquor they asked for, he pulls a stunt to get noticed...
But not getting noticed would have been a better option, especially in regard to his father Brad Sr, played by Christopher Walken in one of the roles which made his fans lament his later choices: famous for never turning a role down, followers of his remarkable talent grew increasingly dismayed that he was not only spreading himself thin, but squandering his ability on roles where he was simply asked to show up and bring the Walken crazy, something he could do in his sleep. Yet when you looked back at a film that really gave him something to get his teeth into, such as At Close Range, you would be rewarded with a performance that was quite superb and reminded you why he was worth watching.
Walken's Brad Sr was not conjured up out of the ether, as what made the film all the more chilling was its basis in truth. The Brad Johnson gang was one which made a lot of money across Pennsylvania in the nineteen-seventies in very illegal circumstances, and were only foiled when one of their associates threatened to go to the police. The main associate being Johnson's son, the one played by Sean Penn here, who testified against him in court - but not before his father and his fellow criminals had murdered a whole bunch of his friends. While it may have been a problem for most films knowing the background behind the story, here it only served to twist the screws further as you can tell something very bad is about to happen from the first minute.
Not that At Close Range was lauded universally when it was first released, as many felt it was far too slick in its aims towards naturalism, creating an artificiality and a distance between the audience and the characters whose skin we should really be getting under. Not helping for those contemporary audiences was the presence of Sean Penn's then wife Madonna all over the soundtrack: not with a selection of songs but with variations on one, Live to Tell, which was a major hit for the singing star in 1986, far more so than the film it hailed from. Even today there are those who rankle at the sound of the tune being used so extensively in composer Patrick Leonard's themes, but it was actually one of her stronger singles and its moody qualities help to sell the tragedy of the narrative even if they jar with the occasional hit of '78 accompanying it.
That narrative stuck fairly close to the real events, with some differences such as the girl Terry was based on being fifteen years old rather than one year older, yet you got the idea pretty soon after the opening that Brad Jr was lacking a father figure, though the one he sought out was the one who would quash his youthful exuberance, that represented by Penn and his fellow cast members either wholesomely frolicking or less wholesomely getting high. Once Brad Jr sees a moneymaking opportunity in joining up with his father's career criminality he opens a whole can of worms: it's blatantly shown that he is out of his league with these grim villains, no matter how charming and welcoming Brad Sr is on the surface, and while he brings up the familial bonds between them he has no compunction about throwing all that out of the window if it suits him in the most ghastly way possible. Director James Foley may have operated at more slick than gritty level, but Walken at his best was there to bring out the pitch darkness of the piece, a genuinely menacing and skin-crawling performance.