James Foley's second feature, At Close Range, does not show much improvement over his debut, Reckless, in 1984. In both pictures, rich visual imagery is overstated to the point of suffocating the story and diminishing its significance.
At Close Range begins as a tale about alienated youth, but quickly devolves into an intergenerational melodrama of a youngster corrupted by his own father in a valueless world. Nicholas Kazan's screenplay is lean, but Foley treats the story of Brad Jr.'s (Sean Penn) fall from grace with excessive visuals and aural ripeness. Everything is lavish, overly stylized: night shots are perfectly lighted; figures are silhouetted against blue light.
A teenager with no prospects, Brad is enticed into crime by a father (Christopher Walken) who had earlier abandoned him. Brad steals tractors and commits crime not out of rebelliousness, but out of a deep emotional need to connect with his father. In this character study of the universal longing of sons for their fathers, the father-son relationship is both simple and allegorical. Brad's romance with a farm girl (Mary Stewart Masterson) compensates for dreary family interactions with his mother (Millie Perkins) and younger brother (Chris Penn).
The contradictions in Brad's character could have made him a loser, a defeatist, but Foley stresses the tenacity of his moral convictions that help him survive a corrupt world. That his triumph is as much moral as it is physical, is evident in a preposterous ending in which Brad is riddled with bullets but miraculously survives.
Inspired by a 1978 “Philadelphia Inquirer” account of a family involved in murder that pitted father against son, At Close Range was a potentially interesting story that had to wait seven years until Foley found financial backing. Hemdale finally agreed to underwrite the $6.5 million budget, provided that its stars, Sean Penn and Christopher Walken, worked for deferments.