If this movie weren't so good, it would be unbearable. As it is, it's good enough to overcome a slow pace and a plot so depressing you might ask yourself, "Why am I still watching?"
The story is simple enough. A young man, Brad Whitewood, Jr. (Sean Penn) is a kid with no future, just spinning his wheels. He lives in a rural Pennsylvania town with his younger brother (Chris Penn), his mother and his grandmother. Every now and then his father, Brad, Sr. (Christopher Walken) shows up in a flashy car with a flashy woman to toss some money on the table. Brad, Sr. runs a gang and makes his cash by stealing. Young Brad sees a way out, maybe to a future. He also yearns for the approval and love of a father he never saw much of. Brad meets a young woman, Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson) and they fall in love. He leads his own gang of juvenile delinquents. He hooks up with his father, who gradually brings him into the real business. Then he sees a stool pigeon killed. Brad may be a thief, but he's not a killer. His father, on the other hand, is both. Brad, Sr. soon takes steps to insure that no one can testify against him when the law gets close. The last quarter of the movie is tough to watch.
The movie is almost two hours long and, in my opinion, drags during the first half. The look of the film says rural poverty. There are broken-down cars in the front yards and trash in the streets. People don't say much during supper; they're too involved watching the television. So why do I like the movie? First, the story line has the trajectory of a major drama. You may know nothing good is going to happen to anyone who comes under Brad, Sr.'s influence, but the yearning for approval by Brad, Jr. puts things into major emotional territory. Second, all the actors give strong performances. Masterson is so appealing as a young woman who falls in love and simply wants what her lover wants. Sean Penn, except for a few high drama scenes when he falls into "acting," does a first-rate job as Brad, Jr. Penn is excellent at showing Brad's almost inarticulate feelings. Most importantly, he's convincing as a guy who could easily end up idolizing a really bad man and who is able finally to find his own strength of character. Christopher Walken, however, is what makes the movie. This is not Walken as an over-the-top bad guy. Brad, Sr. is a charming man, a sort of dangerous good-old-boy without the big gut. Charming as he is, he also is evil, a man without a conscience, prepared to kill anyone who may be a danger to him. Walken brings the movie to life.
As much as I was drawn to the story and as much as I admired the performances, I'm not sure how many times I'd want to watch this film. It doesn't leave a nasty taste in your mouth, but you sure are happy you were never born into the Whitewood family or its environs.