Rob Reiner's Stand by Me (1986) is a minor masterpiece that aptly exemplifies 'the little gem' phase from the director's illustrious career. Reiner still refers to this movie as his best work. With the exception of Misery (1990) and When Harry Met Sally (1989) I’m inclined to whole-heartedly agree. Based on Stephen King's The Body, Stand By Me is an evocative, often poetic snapshot loosely derived from both King and Reiner's childhood memories. These moments of self-discovery have been effectively grafted onto a 'coming of age' story that follows four friends in search of a rumored corpse lying somewhere along the lonely rural railway tracks just beyond their town.
We are first introduced to the writer, Gordie LaChance (Richard Dreyfuss) as he blankly stares out the driver's side window of his parked pickup truck. He's on a remote country road, perhaps very much like the one he recalls from his childhood, with a newspaper clipping laying on his lap that heralds the passing of attorney, Christopher Chambers. Two young boys pass Gordie on their bicycles, their camaraderie becoming the catalyst for Gordie's regression into his own past.
We meet Gordie (now played by Wil Wheaton), a pre-teen smoking cigarettes and playing poker in a secret tree house on the outskirts of town with his buddies Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) and Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman). In King's story, Chris is the protagonist, a self-appointed leader with a compassionate underbelly. However, in the film Reiner shifts the focus, first to Gordie, then more to an ensemble piece - an artistic license that makes the film much more of a collective experience. After all, this is a story about friends.
Gordie likes telling and writing stories. This escape into his own imagination is predicated partly on the fact that his parents (Marshall Bell and Francis Lee McCain) have never been particularly attentive to him - a condition worsened since the accidental death of his older and more popular brother, Denny (John Cusack). Moreover, storytelling fills Gordie's time, often spent struggling over his own emotional feelings about Denny's loss. On the other hand, Chris is a tough scrapper, his defiance desperately attempting to mask insecurities about coming from the wrong side of the tracks. Meanwhile, Teddy is an adventurer with a dark fatalist streak. This too is a cover to hide his pain about a shell-shocked father long since committed to a mental asylum.
The trio is eventually joined by Vern Tessio (Jerry O'Connell); the unwanted fat kid who confides to his friends the approximate whereabouts of the missing body of Ray Brower (Kent Lutrell); a kid who disappeared from town three days earlier. Vern has gleaned this information by eavesdropping on his older brother, Billy (Casey Siemaszko) while digging for a jar of pennies that he hid beneath the front porch of his family's house. Billy belongs to the local gang of n'er do wells fronted by Ace Merrill (Kiefer Sutherland). These older boys delight in terrorizing and taunting their siblings at every chance they get. Learning of Ray Brower's whereabouts, Ace is determined that he and his gang should find the body first and become famous for its discovery. At first, the goal of Gordie and his pals is the same. Yet, as their journey progresses each soon discovers that their soul is less involved in that quest and more focused on learning who they are in relation to one another and the outside world.
At a derelict junkyard, the boys are threatened by owner, Milo Pressman (William Bronder) who picks off their weaknesses one at a time, forcing Gordie, Chris, Teddy and Vern to face their deepest inner fears head on. After narrowly escaping an oncoming train on a trestle, the boys set up camp for the night. To ease their anxieties, Gordie regales his friends with his latest story; that of an overweight underdog named Lardass Hogan (Andy Linberg) who, after consuming a pint of Castor Oil, enters a pie-eating contest just so that he can vomit on his fellow contestants who have taunted him about his weight all his life.
Taking turns protecting each other throughout the night, Gordie and Chris share a moment of quiet introspection while the others sleep. Chris exposes his darkest fear to Gordie; that he will never amount to anything because the town has already branded him a dangerous kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Gordie reminds Chris that his life is not determined by the conviction of others but by how he chooses to regard himself as either the victim or the hero of his own life's story.
The next morning the boys discover Ray Brower's body a few feet away from the train tracks. They are all set to claim the body when Ace and his gang arrive, threatening to beat the boys to a pulp unless they leave the scene immediately. Instead, Gordie fires the gun that Chris brought with him into the air and then, pointing it directly at Ace's head, assures Ace that he will kill him if he does not leave them alone. Under the circumstances Ace complies, although he vows revenge on the boy's once they return home. Gordie tells his friends that to claim Ray Brower's body for their own fame would be wrong. Instead, they elect to give Ray a proper burial right there in the spot where he lays and never again to speak of his whereabouts.
The untimely death of actor River Phoenix has given the ending of the film an unintentional poignancy. The boys return to town before parting company in preparation for their fall semester in high school. Gordie's narration alerts us to the fact that after that summer he and Chris fell out of friendship with Vern and Teddy, who never made much of their lives afterward. Chris, so we are told, went on to become a successful attorney. While attempting to break up a botched hold up in a restaurant, he was mortally stabbed in the neck; the accompanying image of River Phoenix (still a boy) wandering away from Gordie and into the distance, before suddenly vanishing into thin air.
As for Gordie, he is glimpsed once more as an adult, sitting behind his desk writing the memoir of his friendship with these boys. He is interrupted by his own son (Chance Quinn) and his best friend (Jason Naylor); approximately the same age as Gordie was when the story he has been writing took place. "I never had as good a friend as I did at that age," Gordie concludes, "Does anybody?"
In that final revelation Stand By Me achieves a sort of timelessness that probably has been responsible for the film endurance as a perennial family favorite ever since. Raymond Gideon and Bruce A. Evan's screenplay is true to life, if peppered with a tad more profanity than I either recalled from my initial experience of seeing the film when it debuted and, in truth, when reviewing it more recently on Blu-ray. That's an aesthetic criticism and not a lethal one either. These characters live, partly because the dialogue is so hard-edged and unapologetic.
The other attributing factor to the overall success of the piece is the ideal casting of all four central protagonists. Realizing that, at this age boys lack the aptitude to truly feel the emotional content of these characters, Rob Reiner has cast his actors according to type and the result is that each child star gives a memorable performance because at some level they are the characters they are playing; the line between reality and storytelling effectively blurred.
Curiously, the death of River Phoenix in real life has restored the original intent of Stephen King's novel to the film. King always saw his story with Chris as the central character. Reiner chose instead to go the route of an ensemble for his movie, a decision that King embraced as 'right for the film'. Yet, knowing what we do about Phoenix's brief life now only serves to make the film more uniquely his, in spite of the fact that the story's narrator is Gordie. As the audience, we sympathize more with Chris's character today because we recognize the conflict within Phoenix that made his performance so genuine, yet, regrettably also contributed to his tragic fate and brief span on earth.
In the final analysis Stand By Me remains a movie true to its origins. It's different than the King novel, but then again, the best movie adaptations from books generally are. And like King's story, the film strikes just the right chords of sentiment and regret; eternal human emotions that we can all relate to regardless of our respective ages when seeing the film.
Sony Home Entertainment's Blu-ray release in true 1080p resolution is head and shoulders above any previously issued DVD incarnations. Colors are bold and richly saturated. Fine detail is excellent. Contrast is bang on. Flesh tones can appear a tad pinkish at times, but on the whole are natural and accurately rendered. The audio is a lossless 5.1 DTS remix of the original mono soundtrack. This is also included. While the 5.1 doesn't break any sound barriers in spatial audibility, it does deliver some superb moments that the mono track can only hint at.
Sony has been kind enough to include the original commentary Reiner recorded many years ago for the first DVD release. This track offers superficial information at best and is easily topped by Sony's new Picture-in-Picture audio commentary featuring Reiner, Wheaton and Feldman. This exclusive Blu-ray track is an emotional experience, one that augments the film so completely you may want to bring Kleenex to your listening experience. A 37 minute 'making of' featurette is comprehensive and includes interviews with cast, director and author Stephen King. There's also a music video and the film's original theatrical trailer to delve into. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)