One of my all-time favorite movies during my coming-of-age period is the 1986 Orion Pictures release At Close Range. At Close Range is very closely based on a real-life story and features an all-star cast including Sean Penn, his real-life brother Chris Penn, and the legendary Christopher Walken. At Close Range is not a car film, nor do its producers promote it as such. Nonetheless, vintage Detroit iron plays a prominent role in the storyline, which is why I’ve posted it here.
Sean Penn plays Brad Whitewood Jr., a restless and bored young man who hates everything about his life. He hates the dreary little town he lives in, he hates being broke all the time, he hates the ramshackle little house he has to share with his dim-witted younger brother, lethargic mother, introverted grandmother, and his mother’s overbearing new boyfriend. He also hates the decrepit Chevy C20 pickup he drives, which is always breaking down on him.
Perhaps if Junior had a job, he could have bought himself a shiny new Toyota that would run forever ( at least until rust dissolved it away ). Mom isn’t much help, considering how she spends most of her free time staring listlessly at the TV while waiting for handouts from her dirtbag ex-husband and ( working ) live-in boyfriend, who Brad Jr. can’t stand- and the boyfriend can’t stand Jr. either.
Enter Brad Sr., the semi-estranged father, played with malevolent brilliance by Christopher Walken. Big Brad isn’t much of a father and even less of a husband. Big Brad is the leader of a highly successful and feared criminal gang in their small town. Him and his mini-mafia are involved in everything from auto theft, to burglary, to occasional drug smuggling. Stolen cars seem to be their specialty.
Whenever Big Brad does choose to come around, throwing his estranged wife a few pennies for household expenses, he usually always has a hefty wad of cash on him, and always pulls up in a fancy ride, like this Olds 442 convertible:
Little Brad knows about his father’s reputation. Still, he wants what his father has- money, respect, and fast cars. More importantly, he wants to earn the love and respect of his father. Little does he know how his attempt to bond with his sociopathic dad will change his life.
One day Little Brad and his friends are hanging out in the town square getting drunk ( what else is there to do in a small town? ) when a nosy concerned citizen in a ’71 Olds Delta 88 starts harassing them. This proves to be a big mistake, and the badgeless Barney Fife soon learns:
Mr. Civic Duty soon learns the importance of butting out other people’s business, and slinks off with his tailpipe between his legs.
Back at home, mama’s new boyfriend has gotten fed up with Brad Jr.’s irresponsible antics, his freeloading, and his insolent attitude. After a final showdown that turns physical, Junior gets chucked out of the house, leaving his dead Chevy pickup behind. He finds a pay phone and calls his dad to come get him, which the dad does- in a C3 Corvette, no less:
After Little Brad confides his problems to Big Brad, it is then that Brad Sr. takes Junior under his wing, and begins schooling him in the finer points of a life of crime. In a cynical and halfhearted attempt to buy his son’s loyalty, Brad Sr. gifts Jr. with a 1970 Chevelle SS, a car that will later serve as the backdrop for the final confrontation between father and son:
Brad Jr.’s first lesson comes in the passenger seat of this ’69 Camaro SS, which his dad drives to yet another one of his shady business dealings:
Brad Sr. pays cash for this clean, one-owner Ford Fairmont. I don’t know what’s in that Fairmont, but judging from the healthy burnout it does out of the first dealer’s lot, I’m assuming it’s the optional 302 powerplant:
Big Brad immediately drives it to another lot down the street. When that dealership’s owner, who looks like he’s served time himself, asks why Brad Sr. why he’s selling a car he just bought, he says he “doesn’t like the radio” and he and the dealer give each other a knowing look.
When Brad Jr. asks what that was all about, Brad Sr. just smiles and says “laundry”.
Things get complicated when Brad Jr. falls in love with a pretty local girl ( played by Mary Stuart Masterson ), and the two begin a whirlwind romance- much to the chagrin of Brad Sr., who sees her as a threat, and as a rival for his son’s loyalty.
Despite his new romance, Brad Jr. still wants to earn the respect of his father, so him, his brother, and his other friends form their own little syndicate and begin stealing, their first successful heist being an Allis-Chambers tractor and a Peterbilt rig:
On the way to visit his new sweetheart, Brad Jr. gets passed by an Amish buggy before hitching a ride in this old International pickup. A poster on IMCDB.org claims that a friend of his now owns this very same truck, and it’s basically the same now as it was back then:
Things take an ugly and deadly turn when Brad Sr. finds out that a former associate of theirs, who Brad kicked out because of his drunken screwups, has been talking to the feds about Brad’s activities. They’re all hanging out in the local diner when this ’71 Plymouth Roadrunner speeds by:
Plying the old drunk with booze, Brad gets him good and sloshed before loading him into the back seat of the Camaro with Brad Jr. riding shotgun. After arriving at a secluded area, Brad Jr. watches in horror as Brad Sr. and one of his henchman silence the drunken snitch- permanently. Big Brad then gives Little Brad a silent warning:
Brad Jr. finally realizes what an evil, depraved man his father is and wants nothing more to do with him. Jr.’s slightly retarded younger brother, however, is having the time of his life until they all get busted one night after a botched heist. It’s at this point that Brad Sr. begins to unravel. Fearing his slightly developmentally challenged other son might spill his guts, Brad Sr. commits the ultimate betrayal of his own flesh and blood. When his brother mysteriously vanishes, Brad Jr. thinks he knows why, even though he can’t prove it.
Brad Sr. also despises his son’s girlfriend, and resents her for her interference in his relationship ( such as it is ) with his son. When he warns her to leave his son alone, and she refuses, he “punishes” her in the most callous and brutal way possible- he violates her.
For Brad Jr. this is the final straw. He’s taking his girlfriend and getting the hell out of town. He also plans to testify against his dad. When Brad Sr. finds out he goes beserk, having a full-throttle meltdown behind the wheel of this Chevy C10 before making a deadly decision- his son and his son’s girlfriend both have to go:
Brad Jr. and his new love are just about to leave town for good, when his Chevelle is peppered with gunshots. He barely survives, the girlfriend, sadly, doesn’t:
Brad Jr. doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out who’s responsible, and has a final showdown with his evil old man:
Brad Jr. really wants to kill his dad, but decides that the last thing he wants is to end up being like him. He walks away and leaves him to the authorities.
The last we see of Brad Sr. is his arrival at the courthouse in this Dodge St. Regis. He’s going down, and everyone is there to watch.
The entire movie was based on the true-life story of Bruce Johnston Sr., the founder and leader of one of Pennsylvania’s most notorious criminal gangs throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Together with his siblings and others, Johnston’s criminal enterprise went unchecked until his son’s testimony in 1978 finally sent them all to prison. No one was safe from Johnston’s greed or his wrath- not even close friends, neighbors, or family members.
Bruce Johnston Sr. finally died in prison of liver disease in 2002, at the age of 63. Right up to his dying day, he never admitted guilt or showed any remorse for any of his crimes. A true sociopath.