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AT CLOSE RANGE

Review by Alex Haberstroh

Stars:  Sean Penn, Christopher Walken, Mary Stuart Masterson, Chris Penn
Director:  James Foley
Audio:  Dolby
2.0 Surround, Dolby Mono (Spanish), Dolby Mono (French)
Video:  Anamorphic
Widescreen 2.35:1, Pan & Scan
Studio:  MGM/UA
Features:  See Review
Length:  115 Minutes
Release Date:  December 2, 2000

Film ***

Based loosely on the real life events that occurred in rural Pennsylvania in the spring of 1978, At Close Range concentrates on real life killer Bruce Johnston Sr. (whose named was changed to ďBrad Whitewood Sr.Ē in the movie), played electrically by Christopher Walken. 

Brad Whitewood Jr. (Sean Penn) is a poor kid growing up in a small rural town in Pennsylvania with his brother, mother and grandmother.  A born troublemaker, Brad is easily enticed into hislong-estranged and sleazy fatherís world of stealing tractors, cars, and money. 

But when Brad Jr. sees his father and his fatherís friends killing an informant, he realizes that heís been taken further than he ever imagined he wanted to go.  Trying to extricate himself, Brad Jr. realizes that his father wonít let him go so easily. 

I didnít quite know what to expect watching this film, as the calm pace that Director James Foley so carefully sets could be called hypnotic.  The whole first hour it seems as if heís trying to make a surreal art film, from filming the light hitting Brad Jr. and his friends swimming, to the peaceful shots of the Pennsylvania countryside, to even the robberies Brad and his fatherís gang commit which seem commonplace, almost peaceful. 

Yet after Brad sees his father have a man killed, the film takes a turn toward the horrific, his fatherís true evil exposed.  Both Penn and Walken provide dead-on performances throughout the film, but I was particularly interested in Walken, who was able to provide the duality that his character needed: playful and charming one minute, emotionally vacant the next, a true predator.  It was as this point that the true brilliance of the movie to me was fully revealed. 

Beginning to see behind the deceptive veil of serenity the movie initially projects, I saw the underbelly of a truly malignant world where a father will turn on his son without a thought.  I, like Brad Jr., had been lured smiling, almost sleepily into what I thought would be a coming of age story, but instead found an unforgiving tale where family becomes more a question of liability than love.       

Video **

At Close Range was filmed in something called Super 35.  Well, whatever filming process that is, I can easily tell that it was filmed in the eighties.  Like a lot of lower budget eighties films suffer from, the picture is somewhat faded in some sections.  Blacks also arenít represented well, looking almost gray or green, resulting in often not being able to see the characters well in night scenes.       

Audio **

If itís not a James Bond film, count MGM out.  The soundtrack has not been mastered, and while the Dolby Surround has a few moments of activity, most of the sound is lackluster.  Even more frustrating was the low dialogue level, making it difficult to understand the words in some scenes.  More frustrating was the lack of English subtitles, itís a good thing I can read un poco espanol, or Iíd be in trouble.

Supplements *

So what did the supplements consist of? (Loud fanfare) A trailer!  When this disc was sent to me I wondered if it could have been an older DVD that had just never been reviewed, but to my surprise, MGM released this DVD in early December!  Then why does it look, supplementally speaking, like it was released in the first days of DVD? 

Since advertisements on both the box and in the trailer seem to make a big deal out of the fact that the filmís based on a ďtrue story,Ē then why not have a documentary about it, telling the viewer what occurred in real life?  Thanks MGM!

Summary:

In conclusion, At Close Range is a truly powerful film with a talented cast that might just open your eyes a little wider.  Unfortunately, MGMís biggest talent seems to lie in making DVDís with such lackluster treatment that theyíre akin to the work a college student might prepare if he woke up the morning a project was due and tried to salvage it.  Though even with MGMís inability to tie their own shoes, this film is recommended.