At Close Range

At Close Range (1985)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Sean Penn, Christopher Walken, Mary Stuart Masterson
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

Cornfields. American heavy metal in the form of Chevys and red Cadillac convertibles. Farmhouses and uncles with missing teeth. Relatives names Boyd. Sounds like a set-up for a bad b-movie… until you mention the cast. Christopher Walken. Sean Penn. Crispin Glover. David Strathairn.

Now you’ve got "At Close Range" and it falls easily within the best of eighties cinema. I dare you to go to this film and not find multi-dimensional redemption in the strength of the direction, in taking stereotypical elements across the board and underplaying them to orchestrate the perfect drama. One such element is Walken, a man known for ’playing himself.’ In this film, he transcends his well-known shtick to insinuate himself into every layer of this incredible, grand-yet-intimate film.

The acting is impeccable; each performance is truly flawless. Walken is mind-blowing as a ruthless snake of a person and equally ruthless father. Sean Penn is the perfectionist performer, balancing melodrama, strength, vulnerability and both intact and compromised integrity. Bear in mind how many years ago this was filmed and how early on in his film career this was. Mary Stuart Masterson plays off his performance and is the idealistic love of his life, his Juliet. Even Chris Penn’s performance as the naïve younger brother, interested only in the joyrides and extra pot money the schemes in the film provide, is brilliantly juxtaposed to the darkness of the rest of the crew, a brazenly sunny spot in a deep, green, endless forest.

The specific shot that I will call out as one example of both the director’s and the actors’ perfection in the film is the first burglary shown. Brad Sr. (Walken) shatters the glass, beginning the process, peering down into what feels like, to the viewer, his own little world. Brad’s crew set to their posts and tasks. And the camera zooms in on a shot of Tony "he’s an epileptic" Pine (David Strathairn) who, until this point, has said and done nothing to make you think he is any more than another poor relation taking up space in the sitting room. The mastery of his safework says it all, Walken’s method and belief: each man is a member of the team. Each man has a strength and function in the team and, while they may have no other worth than that function, that is their worth to Walken and ultimately to the film. Dickie waters down the safe as Uncle Tony Pine fires it open. And Brad Sr. oversees it, with a glaze in his eyes, as if hypnotized by the scene.

Another such defining shot is when the squealer is drowned as Walken watches from the water’s edge. Penn appears from up the hill, looks out to the water and down at his father. Walken, in one of the most profound moments of the film, looks up at Penn, brings a finger to his lips and quietly says ’Shhhhhh…’ Penn at this moment knows that he has been pulled into the machine, pulled into the family.

I rarely ever stand behind a film and say yes, I think everyone will like this film, or at least admit to some level of sincere appreciation. "At Close Range" doesn’t delve too deeply into the waters of any genre, making it a more universal film. Yet it settles into small-town territory. It leads you through the closet of ugly little secrets that fill a family… and ultimately destroy it. It is a tragedy that can do nothing but either leave one shaking or shaking one’s head, in the least. I discover both beauty and fear in every scene. I see romanticism and ruthlessness. Lush depth and slick veneer.

It is a true story; these people did/do exist, for the most part. Obviously, dramatic license was used but not to the extent of taking away from the truest tragedy of the film: the unconscionable acts that a family can do to one another. The soulless coldness of a father that has no heart, only evil. There is no light and justification, no neatness in what happened to the Whitewoods, only truth and lessons learned.

The DVD is a gorgeous transfer, a very crisp picture with virtually no <$pixelation,pixelation>, no gradation. This is more than important in a film like "At Close Range" since it is very dark, almost noir in its tone and color palette. The DVD contains an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> presentation in the movie’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, as well as a <$PS,fullscreen> transfer on the flip side of the disc, that is a mix between a cropped <$PS,pan and scan> presentation and an <$OpenMatte,open matte> transfer, as it also adds image information at the top and bottom of the screen. Watching "At Close Range" in its original <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio reminds one of how badly the film, as with most <$PS,widescreen> films, suffers in a <$PS,fullframe> presentation. Shots such as Christopher Walken’s sinister countenance, contrasted by the deep blue of the night sky behind him, is woefully lost without <$PS,widescreen> presentation. The contrast cannot be seen since there isn’t enough room to show the vast blueness behind Walken.

The conscientious blocking of the actors, especially in instances like Patch, Dickie and Brad Sr. with the smoking gun after their first two assassinations, is lost to the viewer in <$PS,pan and scan>, thus defeating the impact of the scene.
The blocking is most pointedly seen and felt in the ’showdown’ scene between Brad Jr. and Brad Sr. The panning shot from Penn’s painful solemnity, down his arm, over the gun in his hand, to Walken’s visibly shaken face, is one of the most crucial moments in the film.

The defining scene in terms of quality – of both the film and the film’s DVD transfer – is the aforementioned ’snuffing the snitch’ scene. The subtlety of the dark colors would be lost on a poor transfer. But here, the shades of the water – green, to dark blue, to black – are all clear and perfect. The eerie lighting is wonderfully captured; the milky whiteness of the moonlight casting deep shadows shows no signs of muddied tones. Unfortunately the transfer is a bit on the soft side, supposedly as a result to digital noise reduction in order to remove small speckles and scratches form the film. No edge-enhancement is evident in the transfer, giving it a natural look that is only enhanced by the natural and strong color reproduction.

The sound on this DVD is exceptional. Although only presented as a <$DD,Dolby Digital> 2.0 mix, it makes incredible use of the entire speaker set-up, mainly for music/scoring and separate, distinctive sounds, such as slamming car doors, or sounds of Brad Jr. and his crew running for cover through a corn field when they are shot at by their intended victim. I’ll use the first burglary scene as a prime example of the disc’s better than average sound. As they crash through the skylights of the warehouse, the crystal-sharp sound of glass shattering screams through the front speakers as the heartbeat-like score pulsates through the rear speakers. The sound also has a good bass extension and very good dynamics, making it a very enjoyable presentation. Dialogues are always clear and understandably integrated into the mix.

I’ve been a fan of this film since its release 15 years ago and am renewed in my fervor for it. I’m still amazed and saddened by how many people have not seen it. Unfortunately, the DVD contains no extras except the theatrical trailer. Since the film was based on a true story, slides of actual newspaper articles or a mini-documentary would have been priceless and lent themselves to enforcing the tragedy of the film’s events. Even having Madonna’s "Live to Tell" video (the song was featured prominently throughout the film) would have been a plus. However, it is well worth the purchase to have a marvelously clean copy. This mesmerizing film has finally been done justice for home entertainment.