Walking the tracks with a masterclass in period nostalgia
It’s somewhat ironic that one of the most nostalgic movies of the 1980s acquires its sense of sentimentality from an entirely different era. Based on Stephen King’s novella The Body, Stand by Me is an intoxicating ode to the 1950s, with a tragic underbelly that belies the myth of what on the surface might be considered simpler times. The film explores the malevolent side of small town life and the roles we are bequeathed in a claustrophobic environment that breeds togetherness, and as a result segregation. It is the story of four small town boys and their abrupt transition from childish passivity to stark self-realisation; a tale of alienation and togetherness, of pain and conflict and personal resolution. It’s also one of the finest movies of the decade.
Stand By Me was released in the midst of an incredible eight-year run for director Rob Reiner, who between 1984 and 1992 blessed us with such cult classics as This is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally. Not only is it fair to suggest that Stand By Me is the greatest film of that period, it is arguably the finest achievement of Reiner’s entire career. Prior to Stand By Me, prolific author King had seen an incredible eleven of his works adapted for the silver screen, the likes of Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick and David Cronenberg all tapping into his horror catalogue and putting their own inimitable stamp on the material. Movies such as Carrie and The Shining are undoubted masterworks of their genre, inspiring infinitesimal analysis and receiving all kinds of accolades. Stand By Me is a comparatively low-key production that doesn’t receive half as much critical praise, but based on what it sets out to achieve, it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with them all.
Reiner would kick off the 90s with an adaptation of another of King’s horror novels, Misery, his intimate approach helping Kathy Bates bag an Oscar for Best Actress. Unlike stylistic endeavours Carrie and The Shining, both of which were very much the inimitable visions of auteur filmmakers, Reiner let the material do the talking, and in doing so produced something much closer to King’s vision. Stand By Me was approached in a similar fashion, but King was very particular about his work and had been particularly vocal about his dislike for other adaptations, most notably The Shining. King, who had been turned down as screenwriter on the project, felt that Kubrick handled the material poorly, particularly the Jack Torrance character, who he felt was portrayed as deranged from the outset rather than succumbing to a slow deterioration. He even went as a far as penning his own miniseries as a response.
You could have forgiven Reiner for being just a little nervous when King was treated to a private screening of Stand By Me, but the author had nothing but praise for the movie. “We showed the film to Stephen King alone in a screening room, and when it was over he was pretty broken up. He excused himself for about 15 minutes,” Reiner explained in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “When he came back he said, ‘That’s the best film ever made out of anything I’ve written, which isn’t saying much. But you’ve really captured my story. It is autobiographical. All that was made up was the device of the hunt for the body. I was the writer,’ King said, ‘and my best friend was the guy who actually did instil the confidence in me to become a writer. And he actually was killed as a young man.'”
Mr Lachance: Why Can’t you have friends like Denny?
Gordie Lachance: Dad, they’re okay.
Mr Lachance: What, a thief and two feebs?
King was of course referring to the relationship between best friends Gordie Lachance and Chris Chambers, who one fateful summer set out to find the body of a young kid named Ray Brower. Key to the film’s success are the quite remarkable performances of its largely juvenile cast. Though Gordie (Will Wheaton) may be considered the movie’s protagonist, it would be unfair to say that any one of the four deserves more credit — though River Phoenix is particularly mesmerising as unwilling miscreant Chris, a burgeoning black sheep whose unabashed display of sadness in a scene which poignantly outlines his own sense conflict is really quite astonishing. That this moment comes on the heels of one of the film’s most carefree and tender moments surrounding a campfire is indicative of the movie’s incredible, often volatile, but wholly organic range of emotions. You believe in these kids and the bonds they share, relating to and ultimately empathising with their roles as scapegoats in a town built on hypocrisy.
“Rob Reiner found four young boys who basically were the characters we played,” Wheaton would say in a 2011 interview, recalling how the boys became close friends in reality, something that contributed to the film’s startling sense of honesty. “I was awkward and nerdy and shy and uncomfortable in my own skin and really, really sensitive, and River was cool and really smart and passionate and even at that age kind of like a father figure to some of us, Jerry was one of the funniest people I had ever seen in my life, either before or since, and Corey was unbelievably angry and in an incredible amount of pain and had an absolutely terrible relationship with his parents.”
Wheaton and Phoenix grew particularly close, the actor describing his co-star as “one of the kindest people” he’s ever been around. “[Phoenix and I] stayed friends after we worked on the film, and I went and visited his family. I guess around the time that I was turning maybe 15, we just drifted apart, and I always felt really sad about that.” Due to a tragic drug overdose at the tender age of 23, Phoenix is one of those mythical figures whose legacy is built on questions of what could have been. As human beings we love to glorify the dead, making prophets out of mere mortals, but based on his performance in Stand By Me alone, it’s clear that the boy was a very special talent indeed. A moment late in the movie that sees a departing Chris dissolve as news of his fictional death reaches us has become particularly poignant since the actor’s passing. When it comes to the handling of child stars, Hollywood has so much to answer for.
Credit must also go to Reiner for his handling of the film’s young cast. Their level of performance is in no small part due to his people skills and knack for unearthing the desired effect in potentially difficult scenarios. The actors involved have each attested to the filmmaker’s ability to communicate his vision, but according to the movie’s bonus documentary, it wasn’t all fun and games. Actor Jerry O’Connell, who plays the group’s whipping boy, Verne, spoke candidly about the infamous train scene that saw his character blubbering like a baby as he raced towards a more immediate freedom. Stand by Me has a strong sense of adventure, and as a kid the infamous train dodge is the money scene, the one that first grabs you by the lapels and lets you know that there’s more than an element of danger involved in their coming of age excursion. O’Connell’s unrestrained display of cowardice is key to establishing that sense of danger, but in reality the 11-year-old actor was unable to project the required emotion. Reiner resorted to savagely scalding him for his efforts. His anger wasn’t real. He just wanted to inspire the appropriate emotion. What you see onscreen is very much a genuine reaction.
O’Connell wasn’t the only one to benefit from the director’s influence. During the campfire scene, when Chris finally breaks down under the pressures of victimisation, Reiner suggested that the young actor recall a time in his own life when an adult had let him down, an exercise so effective that Phoenix would later have to be comforted for real. Corey Feldman, a rebellious youngster who Jason Voorhees portrayer Ted White described as “a mean little kid” after his experience on the set of 1984‘s Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter, has gone on record as saying that of all the characters he’s played, Teddy was actually the closest to his personality, and it was through Reiner that he was able to express that. Though he didn’t realise it at the time, Will Wheaton would credit the filmmaker for teaching him the meaning of the term “an actor’s director.” Even the great Kiefer Sutherland extolled the virtues of Reiner’s ability to “allow you to discover a moment when in fact he’s telling it to you.”
A cast so young would require such expert guidance for a screenplay that is rich in humour, tragedy, anger, frustration and pathos, all of it tied to the morning-fresh innocence of juvenile camaraderie. In the movie, our four friends are each caught in their own personal traps. Gordie is the overlooked child whose All-American brother was killed in a car accident, an incident that only solidifies his position as the family’s ‘invisible boy’. His parents don’t hate him as his mind strains to conceive, they’re simply lost in mourning, unconcerned with his own talent as a writer and motivated entirely by the interests of a community that anticipates your every move and awaits the inevitable fall. A town like Castle Rock celebrates football players. Anything creative is considered a stupid waste of time.
Another reason Gordy’s father disapproves of him is the company he keeps and how that reflects on the family name, his callous description of Chris, Verne and Teddy only highlighting the problems facing four kids who will never be allowed the chance to grow beyond the town’s misconceptions. In the eyes of Castle Rock, Chris is a delinquent, Teddy is as crazy as his father, and Verne is the fat kid who will never amount to anything. That’s the way it was, is and always will be, a fallacy the town’s residents will do everything in their power to uphold.
The boys don’t have to look far to know what life has in store for them. Chris only has to look to elder brother, ‘Eyeball’, a faux-miscreant who exudes a smug self-confidence that contradicts his role as hanger-on. Eyeball oppresses those who expect to be oppressed. He behaves exactly as he’s supposed to, wearing his dime store infamy like the scar that mars his face, embracing an ugliness there is simply no escaping. His role model is the town’s true delinquent. Ace Merrill (Sutherland) is the casual scourge who lingers on the corner of every town, the kid who was pushed too far and whose only solace lies in the destruction of other wilting spirits. Ace may be battle-hardened, but his draconian strength was forged from a similar weakness, the kind that threatens every nameless birdbrain to come out of the wood shop. Ace is the personification of a town that cultivates broken lives and relishes in disposing of the pieces. If you’re unable to escape the prison that incarcerates his soul, you’ll be paying him for the rest of your life.
King is a master at creating characters who relate on a universal level, variations of which appear in much of his work, and when dealing with kids, bullies are typically key to the growth of his protagonists. King himself was bullied as a child, and those he sketches are not the kind who are cowardly or easily deterred. They are sadistic, psychotic, borderline murderous, and Ace is no exception. In order to stay in character, Sutherland would bully the boys for real off camera, and his performance is often mesmerising. Ace isn’t your typical greaser lackey fuelled by rebel bravado. You believe he’s bad to the bone. You know he’s capable of the very worst.
Against all of their emerging hardships, our young cast remain boys for one last defining journey. Like most nostalgia pictures, the memories facing the movie’s narrator ― a now successful writer who is led down memory lane by a sudden and unexpected tragedy ― are the stuff of half-truths, cushioned by the bubble of myth and imagination that protects children from the often brutal and sobering nature of a reality they are wholly unprepared for. We all have those stories, those that imbue life with a sense of the fantastical and which we often cling to in later life, recalling with great, synthetic warmth the heady lens of adolescent perspective.
Richard Dreyfuss does an astonishing job of capturing that essence as an adult Gordie sent hurtling through a myriad of repressed memories like Proust after a bite of madeleine. In this instance, news of Chris’ murder acts as the trigger, the basis for a voice over performance seeped in pain, longing, reminiscence and endearment, with a dryness and humour to match that of Daniel Stern in The Wonder Years, a show that breathes the same air. The most memorable of those recollections concerns the local junkyard dog, Chopper, an unseen beast with a cringing appetite who lurks in the shadows of juvenile myth, only to emerge as a golden pup of cutesy proportions. Lurching closely behind we have the junk man himself, a flagrant reminder of the realities lurking beneath, an ogre who goads a rambunctious Teddy with devastating tales of pure cruelty. Teddy’s father isn’t the war hero he imagines, but a loony up in the nuthouse who held him over a stove and almost burnt off his ear, a truth the man derives a sick, perverted pleasure from revealing.
Gordie Lachance: Did you take it? [the milk money].
Chris Chambers: Yeah, I took it! I mean, you knew I took it. Teddy knew I took it. Everybody knew I took it. Even Vern knew it, I think. But maybe I was sorry and tried to give it back.
For a movie that possesses an almost effortless ability to inspire fondness, this is deeply sobering stuff, and though the obstacles pile up as our young cast are drawn ever closer to their symbolic goal, they manage to maintain a sense of the mercifully naïve, particularly Verne and the self-destructive Teddy, whose attempted train dodge reveals his own demons in a way that clearly evades him. Mercifully, such feelings are suppressed beneath facile issues of dubious prominence. The outcome of imaginary battles between superheroes dominate their fundamentally macabre journey, while the true identity of cartoon character Goofy remains a topic of almost scholastic interest. Gordie and Chris are more conscious of their unravelling world, sharing in bouts of well-meaning aggression and explicit sadness that elevates Chris’ role as the surrogate father of not only his closest friend, but of the whole gang.
Though Gordie finds his situation harder to cope with, Chris is the true victim of Castle Rock, the kid tarred with the familial oil who others oppress with the aim of elevating their own place in society. Chris has become so marginalised that even his teacher pinned the blame on him for stealing the milk money from school, safe in the knowledge that her mean-spirited accusations would stick. On the surface, he is just another bad apple from the rotting cart, when in reality his persecution has succeeded in creating an anomaly: a capable, sympathetic young man who possesses the kind of selflessness that is alien to his community. And perhaps they sense this. Perhaps it is this veracity that leaves them at pains to smother his wilting potential.
Such material has the capacity to be even darker, but despite its hardened skin Stand By Me remains a joy to behold. It may have all the hallmarks of an author who specialises in horror, but whenever I return to it I do so with positivity. Imbued with a sense of watercolour nostalgia, it is sharp and witty, tender and poignant, with some of the most memorable and rewarding dialogue of the decade. Who can’t relate to inane discussions about their favourite cartoon characters, about choosing candy as their all-time favourite meal or the first stirrings of a libido, and those rare moments of incalculable beauty that adulthood promises to deliver? Above all the turmoil and angst and desperation, those are the abiding memories I have of the movie, the ones that seem to shine through despite it all. Stand By Me is an often devastating film that highlights some of the most troublesome aspects of the human condition, but whenever I think of it I invariably think of those lighter moments, and they never fail to leave me smiling the way they did when I first discovered its magic, back when I was of a similar age and those characters spoke to me in ways I can no longer fathom.