At Close Range is the extremely underrated film from director James Foley (Perfect Stranger, Fear.)
You may be thinking why I chose to “review” this film as it came out over twenty years ago in 1986. And I can tell you the reason is three-fold: First, it is a highly underrated movie for various reasons which I’ll explain. Second, the film was based on a true story. Third, I discovered at a young age that the meat delivery guy for my grandfather’s store in Philadelphia knew Bruce Johnston firsthand. So naturally I was drawn to this film; I saw it once or twice at a younger age, and having seen it again, I respect it even more.
And so, the objective of this article is to explore exactly why this movie deserves a larger audience, and also to compare and contrast the story of the movie with that of the real-life events it’s based on.
Many concur that this movie didn’t achieve mainstream success because Sean Penn (the main character) and Madonna (who sung the film’s theme, “Live to Tell”) were in a somewhat scandalous relationship at the time of the film’s release, and therefore all the buzz surrounding the film was focused on their relationship above all else. Nonetheless, anyone who’s seen this film can agree that the score, done by Madonna and Patrick Leonard, fits this film beautifully.
The movie has an all-star cast, featuring Sean Penn as Brad Whitewood Jr., Christopher Walken as Brad Whitewood Sr., Mary Stuart Masterson as Terry, Tracey Walter as Uncle Patch, Chris Penn as Tommy Whitewood, David Strathairn as Tony Pine, Kiefer Sutherland as Tim, Crispin Glover as Lucas and Eileen Ryan as Grandma (Ryan is actually Penn’s mother in real life.) Interestingly, Robert DeNiro turned down the role of villain Brad Sr., as he thought the role was “too dark.” In addition, all names in the film were changed from the real names of the people involved.
The essence of the film is that Brad Jr. (Penn) wants to reconnect with his father after his father returns home from jail. An otherwise non-violent man, Brad Jr. willingly partakes in a life of crime in order to impress and bond with his father, who is a renowned criminal in regards to theft. Brad Jr. finds out the hard way that has father is also capable of murder, and after the murder of his girlfriend and brother, he sees his father for the greedy killer he truly is.
While some may describe this film as a riveting drama or a psychological action flick, these true descriptions still can’t attain the true message of this movie, which can be summed up in the phrase, “Blood is thicker than water.” As often as we hear this phrase, rarely do we reflect upon how it’s used in our society an in our individual lives. In the case of the film, we hear Brad Sr. say often that nothing is more important than family, and that blood ties should never broken, until of course, he breaks them (by going as far as killing his own stepson.) Fortunately, Sean Penn’s character is sensible enough to recognize that not all blood ties are strong enough to allow forgiveness, and moreover, just because someone is related to you does not excuse them from their ruthless and sadistic behavior. As Gandhi once said, “an eye for an eye would leave the whole world blind.” In this way, At Close Range examines how true justice comes in the realization that evil knows no bounds, and no blood ties are strong enough to withstand an individual’s humanity.
As far as whether this film is worth viewing, the cast alone should win you over.
Chris Penn (as Tommy Whitewood) does an amazing job as a callow, passive kid who doesn’t realize the primitive severity of his father’s business. One of the most haunting scenes of the entire movie is the scene when Brad Sr. kills Tommy. The expression on Tommy’s face before Brad Sr. pulls the trigger is priceless, not just because we feel sympathy for him, but because we actually want to believe him when he says that he wouldn’t rat out his father. Although his role was small, this was undeniably one of Chris Penn’s best roles of his career.
Crispin Glover (as Lucas) portrays an odd kid who’s in the gang of Brad Jr., and throughout the film we see subtle signs that he’s attracted to Brad Jr., especially in the scene where they swim in the lake. It’s no surprise then why he agrees to join Brad Sr. on the trip that leads to Terry’s rape, although it eventually leads to his death. Still, it’s a Crispin Glover role to a T in terms of it’s quirkiness.
Sean Penn (as Brad Jr.) does a great job as the film’s protagonist, although Walken shines almost over him as the film’s antagonist. We see from the get-go that Brad Jr. is not about violence; I myself even thought he was about to fight the man at the liquor store who took his brother’s money, but we see instead that he jumps on the hood of the man’s car, almost taunting him to make a wrong move first. In this sense, Brad Jr. isn’t a violent character, but someone who easily gets caught up in a violent lifestyle due to his father’s influence. Besides immersing himself in a life of crime, he even recruits four other people to be a part of his gang, just as his father’s gang has five total members. If you’ve seen the movie, perhaps one of the most powerful scenes is when Brad Jr. is washing off the blood from his bullet wounds. As mentioned previously, this entire movie is about the sacredness of family ties, and hence why this scene is most significant; the bullet-holes essentially represent that his own blood (his father) was willing to murder him. Although Sean Penn’s performance may have been overshadowed by that of the villain (Walken,) I can’t imagine anyone else playing this role.
Mary Stuart Masterson (as Terry) plays a naive teenage girl; in the film she’s assumed to be sixteen, but the character she plays in real life (Robin Miller) was actually fifteen when she was killed. Obviously Terry’s murder is a tragedy, but the bigger tragedy seems to lie in the popular yet accurate formula of two young lovers willing to risk it all to achieve personal freedom. While I’ve found nothing firsthand on whether the real life Robin did this, many who’ve seen the film oversee the fact that Terry in the movie knew what she was getting into; she had to know Brad Jr. got her the necklace out of dirty money, and she had to suspect he was involved in dangerous activity when she nursed his initial bullet-wound to the face. But still, she went with Brad Jr. to meet his father, an even stood up to the Whitewood crew in protest. We can’t blame her for being so young and therefore not knowing any better, but we can recognize that often the combination of young love and an ill-advised plot to get rich, ends disastrously.
Christopher Walken (as Brad Sr.) does an amazing job as a greedy, paranoid, ruthless man, who becomes jealous and vindictive of even his own sons. From the get-go, we see that everyone around Brad Sr. is intimidated by merely his stare, as if his eyes are on fire with evil. Being the leader of the gang, he acts as if no one is capable of being the criminal he is, which perhaps is true. Brad Sr. is actually more of a villain than any character you could witness in the mafia, as besides killing his own stepson, he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. As mentioned previously, one of the most haunting scenes of the film is when Brad Sr. kills Tommy, his stepson. Right before he does so, he howls like a coyote and then precedes to tell a story of how a coyote draws in a dog as it’s prey, although he shoots Tommy before Tommy could ever grasp the moral, which was that he (Tommy) was led out to that area cause he himself was prey.
Brad Sr.’s character is further exemplified through the film’s dialogue. In the scene where he gives his son (Sean Penn) a car, he says he doesn’t feel right about letting Brad Jr. join his gang; he then gives his son a second glance before telling him to leave, and in this glance it’s as if he’s thinking, “You don’t know how easily I could corrupt you.” When he takes Tommy and Brad Jr. for a drive, he says, “Everyone sees farms; I see money. Anything that moves has my name written on it.” His son then replies, “my name too,” and we see Brad Sr. feed off of this, again reinforcing the bond that Brad Jr. wants to have with his father. His greedy side is further portrayed in the restaurant scene, where he says he has a present for his sons, and he takes out his gun. He then says, “It’s mine, you can’t have it.” (Also notice how Brad Jr. didn’t pick up the gun but his brother did.) Brad Sr. then subtly dares his sons to do something to prove themselves, and of course as young boys with nothing better to do, they accept the challenge.
Further sadistic and reckless behavior is seen within his drinking and driving, his need to liquor/drug up his victims before harming them, and of course, his rape of Terry (Brad Jr.’s girlfriend,) simply because he was jealous of her wanting to escape the town with his son, and therefore take his son away from him. Although there are many “creepy” scenes in the film, I found the most disturbing to be the scene where Terry comes to Brad Sr.’s house, asking why Brad Jr. wasn’t let out on bail. Brad Sr. says that the police held him in hopes of him talking, and Terry replies, “About what?”, before realizing the answer. The stare that Brad Sr. gives her at this moment is downright unsettling, not to mention immediately afterwards he offers her Corn Flakes (right before this scene, he watched roosters get destroyed in a cock fight; the setting of the film surrounds cornfields… See the connection?) To top it off with the little details, in the scene where Terry and Brad Jr. are shot, we see Brad Sr. wearing a ring on his pinky finger; for my own reasons, I felt this was a subtle way to portray that Brad Sr. made a “deal with the devil.”
Ironically, in real life Walken actually dislikes and fears guns, which is why in the film’s climax, we can truly sense his anxiety when Penn’s character is pointing a loaded pistol in his face.
Then of course, we must remember the powerful way this film was shot. Although this was released in 1986, this outshined all other 80s films for me due to the captivating manner which the director portrayed the characters. For example, if you’ve seen the film, you’ll obviously remember the scene where Brad Sr. kills Tommy. Besides the creepy dialogue and mannerisms (as mentioned above,) notice how all we see is complete darkness, before seeing only partial glimpses of Tommy and Brad Sr.’s face. Also the scene where Brad Jr. and Brad Sr. are talking in the shed; notice how Brad Jr. is in white and Brad Sr. in black, but with the blonde hair they seem as mere reflections of one another. Another beautiful scene was where Terry and Brad Jr. escape Terry’s house and run through the cornfields side by side. And who can forget the film’s opening, which gives props to the now-undermined notion of opening credits.
The Real Story:
Brad Jr. and Brad Sr. Whitewood (Penn and Walken) were portraying the real life Bruce Jr. and Bruce Sr. Johnston. Dickey and Patch Whitewood in the film portray David and Norman Johnston (part of Bruce’s quintet-gang.)
Says a February 1980 issue of People Magazine during the aftermath of the Johnston’s arrest, “Like his brothers, Bruce Sr. looks more like a hillbilly hell raiser than a methodical criminal, but police say that’s misleading. ‘He comes on like a country bumpkin,’ observes a detective, ‘but behind that face is a mind that’s always going.'” The article also says, “During the ’70s the Johnston gang allegedly made off with more than $1 million in cars, trucks, guns, sporting goods, construction equipment, cigarettes, food, antiques and cash.” (At Close Range took place in the spring of 78′.)
Sean Penn’s character (Brad Jr.) portrayed 19 year-old Bruce Jr. Johnston (although Penn was 26 when the film was made.) Says the same article, “Predictably, police offered young Bruce a deal if he would testify (against his father) before a federal grand jury. At first he refused. But he was 19, and in love with 15-year-old Robin Miller… According to Robin, Bruce Sr. and another man accompanied her on a visit to his son, then took her to a motel. After that, she told Bruce Jr. later, his father persuaded her to down nearly a quart of whiskey. She said she believed she had been raped while unconscious. Infuriated, Bruce Jr. decided to avenge himself by turning state’s evidence.”
This same People Magazine article went on to say that Bruce Sr. put out a $5,000 hit on Bruce Jr.’s life, but because he was in prison, Bruce Sr. and his brothers were only able to kill the four remaining “kiddie gang” kids, including James Johnston (played by Chris Penn as Tommy Whitewood in the film.) “According to Ricky Mitchell, a gang member who has confessed to his part in the slayings, James and two other boys were taken one August night to a field in Chadds Ford, PA and shot to death by Bruce Sr., David and Norman. They were buried in a common grave. A few days later another young gang member was similarly executed, and his body was placed in a landfill.”
Despite his life being in danger, Bruce Jr. got out of custody in hopes of leaving with Robin. Here is a quote describing the night of their departure: “After midnight on Aug. 30, 1978 he and his girlfriend drove up to her empty home. ‘I’ve got to feed the cats,’ she said. Then, suddenly, two figures emerged from the darkness, shoved pistols at the couple and began firing at point-blank range. Shot in the face, Robin ran into the house and died. Bruce Jr., hit three times in the head and six times in the back, staggered into the house and managed to reach a phone. The police found him a half hour later, weeping by Robin’s body.”
In the same article, authorities went on to say that they didn’t expect Bruce Jr. to live, and without him, they would’ve never made a case against his father.
Says reporter Nancy March of The Mercury Newspaper in Pottstown, PA, “In one of the first hearings I attended on the case in 1978, I witnessed a helicopter landing in the parking lot of a courtroom delivering the witness Bruce Johnston Jr. from the federal witness protection program. Johnston was brought into court with a coat over his head, flanked by armed federal marshals to protect against a hit.”
“Testimony that the payment for shooting a 16-year-old boy between the eyes was getting the killer’s car fixed ‘at a Gilbertsville body shop’ was unnerving. David and Norman Johnston were convicted of killing five witnesses. Both are serving life sentences in Pennsylvania prisons. Bruce Johnston Sr., the gang ringleader, was convicted of killing six people. He died in 2002 while an inmate at Graterford prison.”
So, while many films that are “based on true events” severely alter the events contained, At Close Range manages to stay true. All of the events mentioned above are depicted in the film accurately, even down to the line where Terry (Robin) mentions feeding the dog before she was shot. The only exceptions are that Kiefer Sutherland’s character (Tim) is still alive during the trial when Brad Jr. testifies in the movie, although that’s not to say that the real life Bruce Sr. didn’t get people to murder Sutherland’s character while Bruce Sr. was in jail. Another main difference is that Bruce Jr. in real life never confronted his father as Brad Jr. did at the end of the movie; that was obviously added for dramatic effect. Still, what can’t be denied is the fact that while Robin was killed with one bullet, Bruce Jr. managed to survive in withstanding nine… Perhaps it’s a real life twist of fate that Bruce Jr. was spared his life so his father, Bruce Sr., could be imprisoned and therefore not kill anyone else.
I recommend this film to anyone and everyone.