Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Live to Tell

I remember, when I was a teenager back in the 1980s, hearing Madonna's big hit "Live to Tell", and knowing that it came from a movie called At Close Range. I never got the chance to see the movie, but when DirecTV had a free preview of the Epix channels, they ran it. It's going to be on the main Epix channel again tomorrow afternoon at 6:00 PM.

(Madonna's music video for "Live to Tell". WARNING: some key plot points of the movie may be revealed.)

Sean Penn (who was married to Madonna at the time which is why her song wound up as the soundrack to the movie, heard mostly in an instrumental arrangement until the closing credits) plays Brad Whitewood Jr., a recent high school graduate in the more rural parts of Pennsylvania in the spring of 1978. He's a shiftless young man, not having much in the way of prospects and getting into all sorts of low-level trouble, such as shaking down a man who gypped his kid brother out of the $5 to buy a bottle of liquor.

Home life is a bit chaotic, living with his kid brother Tommy (Chris Penn), Grandma (the Penns' real-life mother Eileen Ryan) and mom Julie (Millie Perkins). Mom and Dad got divorced many years ago after Dad got sent to prison, and now Mom shacking up with a series of men, with Dad showing up once in a while to give Mom some money that's likely the product of yet another crime.

Brad Jr. gets into it with Mom's latest boyfriend, so he decides that since he's of age, he's going to go see Dad and perhaps live with Dad for a while. Mom hates the idea because she knows what Dad is really like. Dad, Brad Sr. (Christopher Walken), is the leader of a criminal gang that engages in all sorts of robberies, especially of farm equipment, and it's those robberies that got Dad in jail. But Dad seems to like his son, at least to the extent that he's trying to buy his kid's love and loyalty.

Meanwhile, that first time we saw Brad Jr., he was meeting 16-year-old Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson), and the two fall in love even though her parents hate the idea of the two seeing each other for fairly obvious reasons. Eventually Brad Jr. takes Terry to meet Dad, who isn't so sure of the relationship either, probably seeing Terry as a threat. Eventually, young Brad goes on a job with his father to see if he'd be willing to join the gang full time.

Brad Jr. decides against it, because things go wrong and Dad ends up having a man who could have been a witness. murdered Brad decides instead to start his own gang with his own friends and Tommy. They'd been getting into petty trouble as I mentioned, and being so young definitely aren't ready for the sorts of real crime that his father and the gang have been carrying out. Brad Jr. and friends get arrested.

That gives prosecutors an in to try to get at Brad Sr., whom they know full well is a really bad man but don't have enough evidence on to get him back in jail. Brad Sr. understands the danger, too, and when little Brad figures this out, sparks are going to fly.

The closing credits reveal that At Close Range is based on real people, but the names have been changed and some events have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes. It's an extremely disturbing story, reminding me in places of Badlands and in other places of Animal Kingdom. Sean Penn and Christopher Walken are both excellent, and I can't help but think it's the subject material of the movie that led to both of them getting ignored by the Academy come Oscar time.

The other acting is good too even if it's mostly in support of the two leads. Among them are a young Crispin Glover and a young Kiefer Sutherland as Brad Jr.'s friends. Another big plus is the cinematography and production design, which does a very good job of recreating lower class rural white America. (Tennessee is standing in for Pennsylvania, however.) Living in a declining town in the Catskills, having traveled around a lot of upstate New York, and through a good deal of northern New England during my time in college, I got to see a lot of the small town centers and outlying residences of the sort that are shown here, and it really brought back memories.

The one irony is with Madonna's song. The lyrics in some ways don't really fit the movie, largely because you've got a woman singing it in Madonna. "A man can tell a thousand lies/I've learned my lesson well" makes it sound like nobody's going to believe a woman who's been harmed by her boyfriend or husband, or something similar. But that's not exctly what the movie is about, since it's a father/son dynamic, no woman here. Of course, that's not really a problem with the movie itself, just something I noticed since I had heard the song so many times before seeing the movie.

At Close Range is out of print on DVD, which is a huge shame. Amazon Prime Video says it's leaving there in a couple of days, while Google Play doesn't say anything about if it's leaving there; I don't know about the rights issues for streaming video. Catch it while you can; I highly recommend At Close Range.

No comments: