A few years ago, a professor from whom I was taking a theatrical lighting class described a production being done at UCLA as being, "a show about blue backlighting". In the same way, At Close Range is a film about fancy camera moves. There's a genuine plot hiding back there somewhere, but it is almost totally obscured by an overindulgence in technique for technique's sake. At Close Range is a textbook example of an overdirected movie.
The self indulgence of director James Foley is particularly unfortunate because the plot he so artfully conceals would be quite interesting, at worst, and possibly extremely important, if Foley had only been content to make a movie about it. The story, based on a real life incident, follows a rural Pennsylvania boy whose father, returning after many years away, draws him into a life of crime. The father (played by Christopher Walken) runs a gang of thieves who have made tractor stealing into an industry, and have no objections at all to any other profitable crime which turns up. Dazzled by the promise of more wealth than honesty could ever bring him, the son (Sean Penn) starts up his own gang, sort of a bush league version of his father's. Eventually, he decides that he's ready to move up to the majors, but he finds that he isn't quite as unprincipled as he thought. His attempts to disentangle himself lead to tragedy.
The story has much to say, and, as best I can make out, Nicholas Kazan's script makes at least some attempt to say some of it. The relationship between a father and son, how young men become criminals, the balance between family loyalty, love, and principles, and any number of other worthy themes suggest themselves. Unfortunately, Foley seems to have no interest in any of these themes, nor in any other theme. Foley is interested in camera moves, camera angles, lighting effects, montage for montage's sake. He devotes his attention to making sure that something odd is done, technically, with each and every shot, and that each oddity is unique. I am impressed by his imagination (which, I guess, was the idea), but, as a filmmaker, Foley seems to be a flop. He has little idea how to tell the story, or perhaps just no interest. He doesn't really play fair with his performers, so what look to be good performances from Penn, Walken, and others emerge as disjointed glimpses peeking around technical wizardry.
Foley is abetted by his cinematographer, Juan Ruiz Anchia, who shoots almost every setup as if he intended to submit a still from it into a photography contest. Every frame is visually striking. Unfortunately, the visual effect rarely seems to have anything whatsoever to do with what is going on in the story. Patrick Leonard's score similarly follows the lead of Foley, by pointing up the camerawork rather than the story. Anchia and Leonard both do a good job at what they set out to do, but both set out to do the wrong thing.
Sean Penn gets a lot of bad press, mostly because he doesn't like the press. Maybe he is an asshole (though he seemed nice enough, if rather withdrawn, when he spoke at UCLA), but he is also a fine actor. His roles in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Falcon and the Snowman, and At Close Range are very diverse, showing excellent range. In this film, Penn is a convincing Midwestern kid, caught up in a lot more than he bargained for. Walken, who is almost always excellent, is a bit too much of a cipher as the father, too changeable with too little justification. In stories based on real life, truth is a defense, I suppose, but Kazan and Walken might have tried harder to tie the threads of his character more tightly together. Mary Stuart Masterson is good as Penn's girlfriend, and Christopher Penn does a good job as Penn's younger brother.
I have nothing against technical flair. I loved Blood Simple, which featured even crazier camerawork than At Close Range. The difference is that, in Blood Simple, every move of the camera, every weird angle, every trick of the lighting seemed to reenforce the story, while each element of the photography in At Close Range seems to be irrelevant. The cinematography in this film is not connected to the story. Even if the ideas were a little more tightly bound to the plot, the story in At Close Range practically screams for a simple, straightforward treatment. The story is American Gothic, in the tradition of In Cold Blood and Badlands. The trick to making At Close Range really work was to make it look very, very real. Foley made it look very, very fake. Even the locations look like they were created in a studio.
At Close Range isn't particularly good entertainment, nor is it moving, nor instructive, except for incipient cinematographers and directors. A good story has gone to waste, and there is no need for most people to bother checking out the obscured virtues of the film. Those who have never understood what "overdirected" means might want to see At Close Range, if they really want to fill this minor gap in their film knowledge.
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