Most helpful critical review
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on August 31, 2014
My title's from the hilarious tag-line in the thumbnail art. Oh dear, they had a difficult time trying to market this, an intimate suburban crime drama whose mature lead actor was Christopher Walken, whom we all love, but let's face it, he never lured excited mall shoppers into the multiplex. For that matter, neither has Sean Penn, even when he was young and baby-faced -- one wants to pinch his rosy cheek and pat him on his dyed-blond head, here. He was well into his twenties by the time he made this, but he convinces as a teenager. (The as-always careful acting from him helps too, of course.) It's hard to correlate the cherub in this movie to the scary old man he is today, only in his mid-fifties but looking twenty years older. A 30-year-long 2-packs-a-day smoking habit did him no favors. Hey kids, don't smoke.
So, faced with two stars of questionable drawability in a grim and greasy crime story, the studio remembered who Penn was married to. And that's how those of us who came of age in the Eighties, glued to MTV, were subjected to Madonna's "Live to Tell" video, which the network ran on a more or less endless loop in 1986. I didn't see "At Close Range" when it released because I didn't have to: the video consisted of clips of the movie that pretty much spoiled the whole film, interspersed with shots of Madonna herself looking mournfully at the camera and wearing a farmer's-wife's dress. The song, in varying modulations, is used as the centerpiece of the film's score. It doesn't sound like Madonna's other material -- then or now -- but she did in fact co-write it with composer Patrick Leonard. When you're in love, you do uncharacteristic things, I guess. In any case, the Madonna lure failed: the film lost money.
One gets the feeling while watching it that the movie should be better than it is. Walken runs a moderately-sized burglary ring that steals tractors from the local family farms, presumably chopping them up later for parts or whatever. One assumes he manages other activities as well, but the movie doesn't really go into them. All very realistic -- based, in fact, on actual events in Lancaster County in the late Seventies -- but not very suspenseful. We just sort of watch the movie drift along while anticipating the next manufactured crisis. Fearful of informers, Walken and his gang kill partners and witnesses, but we don't care that much, probably because we don't care much about the movie's characters, almost all of whom are unlikable. Even a rape scene, disturbing in its own context, feels like just another tired plot maneuver to prepare for the final confrontation between Penn and Walken.
Maybe I'm the problem. I guess I'm just not that interested in uncultured, boring people who have no discernable traditions. Perhaps I prefer crime epics where the scale is larger and the criminals have personality. Lancaster County is not rural enough for mountain culture and it's not big-city Philly either -- it's a suburban area of small towns and factories. Suburbs aren't very interesting as a setting for criminals. Nonetheless, the film still has virtues that can be enjoyed, mainly through the performances. Penn is pitch-perfect and Walken is equal-parts avuncular and cold-as-ice. We forget that he built his reputation on great performances like this. There was a time before he became a sort of national joke whom every numbskull stand-up comedian impersonated, usually badly, and this movie was from that time.
3 out of 5 -- watch this one for the actors.