The other night I watched At Close Range, the 1986 movie with Sean Penn and Christopher Walken. It was partly opportunistic: I got an email telling me the film's presence on Amazon Prime was going to expire at the end of September. That reminded me I hadn't seen it in forever, and I had distant memories of it being an immensely affecting movie. My memories were right, and watching it brought back to mind a great many thoughts about why it's hard to make projects like this. (It was apparently a passion project for Penn, and it showed.)
For those who haven't seen it: Penn plays a young man named Brad Whitewood, who lives in a rural patch of Pennsylvania in one of those houses where the yard around it has more dead cars than live ones. His biological, Brad Sr. (Walken) is persona non grata. Brad Jr. has little to enjoy at home except stupid pranks, getting high, and going nose-to-nose with his stepdad. One day he looks up his real dad and decides to see if he has anything better to offer.
Brad Sr. is a career criminal. In their first on-camera job, he and his gang break into a warehouse, torch open the safe, and split the proceeds. He buys a car in cash with his share, sells it to another dealer also in cash, for a slight loss ("I didn't like the radio"). Brad Jr. looks at this and doesn't just see someone smart enough to launder his gains, but someone with the kind of bravado he'd like to be around and maybe acquire some of for himself. He tries to insinuate himself with his father, even going so far as to round up some neighborhood friends of his to commit a few jobs. But then he ends up in jail, and then finds out his dad would rather have him dead than squealing.
Two things struck me about the movie. The first is how unsensational and unaffected it is. The movie came out several years before Quentin Tarantino made his debut (1992), and before most every movie of this kind became a snarky and ultimately forgettable exercise in style no thanks to him. (Who here remembers Blood, Guts, Bullets, And Octane? Yeah, me neither.) The ghost of Tom Joad hangs over the film, not QT. Criminality is only cool to Brad Jr. and his callow circle of friends (including his brother), not to us. The movie is not interested in making Brad Sr. and his gang look glamorous or even particularly competent. They do this because they're not suited for much of anything else in life -- not that the world around them offers them anything better, either. Little, if any, time is wasted on the mechanics of their crimes; it's about the implications of being the kind of person that makes this their way of life. (The movie's attitude towards its material, not just the material itself, is blue-collar.)
Movies with that focus are hard to make, because they can degenerate into mere misery. A few years back there was a Christian Bale flick, Out Of The Furnace, that took something of the same approach, but it was devoid of compassion. I watched it mainly for Bale's performance, but the rest of the movie was perspectiveless, one-dimensional gloom.
The second thing is how I'm realizing I have an affinity to stories about people with doomed lives, although they have to feature a compassionate view of the material. I don't think there's a label for this kind of work, so the best thing I can do is run down a number of other works that seem like brothers to the idea, and let the collective flavor rest on your tongue: STAR 80; Badlands; They Shoot Horses, Don't They?; Mike Leigh's Naked; No Bells On Sunday (the Rachel Roberts story); It Gave Everybody Something To Do (the Louise Thoresen story). People with no future and who don't know it, or who know it and can't do anything about it. And, most crucially, for whom the creators of the work have compassion in some form, rather than pity or contempt. (Most everything Hubert Selby, Jr. did was in this vein.)
I don't know that I could ever write such a story well. I'm too far removed personally from teh circumstances of such lives to do justice to any of it. But at least I can learn a few things about why and how such stories are composed.
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Other Lives Of The Mind