Picks and Pans Review: At Close Range

updated 04/28/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/28/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Stick this movie out. The rewards are worth wading through the muck, especially thick in the first 15 minutes. That's when director James (Reckless) Foley puts the hard sell on his star, Sean Penn. To play a dirt-poor tough in rural Pennsylvania (the film was shot in Tennessee), Penn has peroxided his hair and, with the help of trainer Ray Kybartas, pumped up his biceps and chest to near-Rambo size. Foley's camera hovers in rapt adoration: See Sean booze and brawl with his low-life buddies. See Sean flirt with his girl, played by Mary Stuart Masterson. See Sean nibble his toenails (no kidding, he does). Then, just when you're dismissing the whole enterprise as a Mr. Madonna movie, something astonishing happens: Christopher (The Deer Hunter) Walken comes on as the adored gangster father who abandoned Penn as a child, and the story takes hold. With his fast cars, easy money and easier charm, Walken offers a life Penn can't get by sitting on the front porch with the folks. Mom is sharply etched by Millie (The Diary of Anne Frank) Perkins, and as grandma and half-brother, respectively, Penn's real mother, Eileen Ryan, and real brother, Christopher Penn, are especially effective. (No, Sean's real bride doesn't show up, though she does sing the film's theme song.) Inspired by Walken, who has never been better, Penn stops preening and gives the least tricky, most heartfelt performance of his seven-movie career. A hellish seduction ensues after father lures son into the family business. Thieving, Penn thinks, will bring him closer to his father and the new life he craves. One moonlit night he learns the error of that notion. Accompanying Dad and his gang to a swamp, Penn watches in horror as they casually drown a harmless informer. Raising a silencing finger to his grinning mouth, Walken asks his son's complicity in evil. It's an image that ranks with the most chilling in film memory. Later, when Penn rebels, the father coldbloodedly tries to arrange his son's murder. What happens will not be revealed here, but Nicholas Kazan's screenplay was inspired by the real-life 1978 Johnston family murders in Pennsylvania. Details are exaggerated, but the heart of the case is not. As the son who is trying to rise above the dark impulses he shares with his father, Penn is shattering. But it's Walken's Oscar-caliber performance that makes the movie. Not since Robert Mitchum in 1955's The Night of the Hunter has there been such a convincing demon prowling the screen. At Close Range should come with a warning label: movie dynamite. (R)

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