When I heard the tragic news of Chris Penn's death at age 40 last week, I decided to revisit one of my favorite films, AT CLOSE RANGE (1985). Based on a true story, it is about a low-life criminal father, Brad Whitewood (Christopher Walken), who, after being estranged from his sons for years, bursts back into their lives and invites them in to his criminal world. The sons, Brad Jr. and Tommy, (Sean Penn and Chris Penn), gaze at their father admiringly when he shows up to placate their mother with a few hundred dollars. Brad Jr. and Tommy are both impressed with their father's charisma and success. Brad Sr. takes Brad Jr. under his wing to teach him how to pull off heists with a group. Chris Penn's Tommy feels left out and ignored.
The sons are not angels, but they soon see that their father goes too far into criminal activities, and they want out.
When I first saw AT CLOSE RANGE in the 80's, I had been working on locked adolescent psych units conducting psychological assessments with murders and rapist. I was stunned how this terrific cast captured the very souls of their characters. The cast couldn't have been better: Christopher Walken's Brad Sr. has a cold hard heart, yet he's charming. Sean Penn's Brad Jr. is the rough but sweet older brother who has a close and trusting relationship with his brother, Tommy. Sean and Chris Penn's real mother, Eileen Ryan, plays their grandmother, a woman who has had to see too much in her lifetime.
Other treats are a young Mary Stuart Masterson as the attractive and earnest Terry, Brad Jr.'s loyal and supportive girlfriend. David Strathairn, who just received an Oscar nomination for GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, is one of Brad Sr.'s crime partners, Tony Pine. Kiefer Sutherland, and quirky character actor Crispin Glover round out the talented cast.
This taut thriller's value is the chilling authenticity it achieves. Christopher Walken becomes Brad Sr. It is stunning when he shows his true colors, and his sons lose their admiration and no longer hold out hope that he will change and be the loving father they wish for. Brad Sr. sees people only for what they can do to further his goals. He leaves a trail of damaged hurt people in his wake. A youthful Sean Penn is mesmerizing and powerful on screen.
One of my most favorite moments in film comes from AT CLOSE RANGE. At one point Chris Penn's Tommy asks his father for mercy; all he says is "Dad." It is delivered with verve and passion, and is believable. That moment stuck in my mind for 20 years. With a DVD recommendation, AT CLOSE RANGE, this is Joan Widdifield.
We will remember Chris Penn.
© 2006 - Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D - Air Date: 2/1/06
At Close Range
Chrisopher Walken, Sean Penn, Christopher Penn, David Strathairn, Kiefer Sutherland, Crispin Glover, Mary Stuart Masterson