When Robert Redford's 'The Company You Keep' was rolling into theaters, there were a lot of pundits (mostly of the right-wing variety) accusing the director/actor of glorifying the Weather Underground movement in his latest film. You can almost understand their apprehension, since Redford has never been shy about expressing his politics. However, the biggest problem with 'The Company You Keep' isn't that it's controversial, but rather that it's not controversial enough.
Based on the novel of the same name by Neil Gordon, 'The Company You Keep' tells the story of a man who was involved in the Weather Undergound movement of the 1970s who has changed his identity and gone into hiding as he's wanted in connection with a bank robbery during which a security guard was shot and killed. The intention of both the book and the film is for the audience to ponder whether the standing of a person in the present should have any effect on the sins of their past.
I haven't had a chance to read Gordon's novel, but have learned enough about it to know that Redford's movie (from an adapted screenplay by Lem Dobbs) waters down the lead character's background to the point that few viewers can side against him. Without giving too many plot secrets away, Redford is so careful about making sure justice is handed out fairly in his story, that he loses the whole point that Gordon was trying to address in his book.
Redford stars as lawyer Jim Grant, who has spent his career doing a lot of pro bono work and building a reputation as an upstanding member of the community. He's a single father to daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho), as his wife has passed away. As the movie opens, a former member of the Weather Underground (played by Susan Sarandon) involved in the bank robbery I mentioned above is arrested by the F.B.I., and young up and coming reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) starts to investigate the case. While diving into her past, he uncovers that Jim Grant is actually a former member of the Underground named Nick Sloan and also wanted for the same crimes. When Grant/Sloan finds out his cover has been blown, he arranges for his brother (Chris Cooper) to watch Isabel while he goes on the run. At first, we think he's running away, but we soon find out he's actually running toward something... or someone.
Giving away any more would spoil the film, although it sadly turns into something more akin to The Fugitive than the kind of political thriller that it should be, which is something along the lines of All The President's Men. I won't go as far to say that LaBeouf is miscast as the reporter (a role that Redford himself might have played if this movie were made 30 years ago), but being surrounded by so many great character actors (in addition to the ones listed already, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Terrence Howard, Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, and Richard Jenkins also have parts) doesn't help LaBeouf, who is rather one-note and flat in his performance. A romantic subplot involving his character and one played by Brit Marling (although she's part of the film for other reasons as well) seems thrown into the screenplay for no logical reason.
In any other hands this screenplay might have resulted in a very forgettable film, but Redford is such a good actor and director, almost every scene is highly watchable. LaBeouf's character aside, almost every other one in the movie is interesting, thanks in no small part to the talent portraying them. Most of the big names in the film only have two or three scenes in the whole movie, and I kept thinking that whole screenplays could be devoted to their characters. In fact, the fugitive Susan Sarandon plays is so much more interesting than Redford's fugitive that one can't help but think what this film might have been like if it focused more on her. Sadly, she's out of the film as quickly as she's introduced, never to be seen again after a few riveting scenes.
Most of my complaints about 'The Company You Keep' revolve around the movie it might have been, instead of the movie it is. As any good reviewer will tell you, you can't review what you wish was on the screen – you have to review what's actually there. With that in mind, this film is a competent thriller – well-directed, with some great actors along for the ride. Do I wish Redford had risked being more edgy and controversial with the story? Sure. But it's a film that is still worthy of taking a look at.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Company You Keep' arrives on Blu-ray in one of Sony's standard keepcases, with an insert for a digital UltraViolet version of the film. The reverse side of the box cover slick (seen from the inside of the case) features a montage of photographs of the movie's actors. The 50GB dual-layer Blu-ray is front loaded with an ad for Sony Blu-ray, along with trailers for At Any Price, Love Is All You Need, 'Fill The Void', and 'Before Midnight'. These trailers are also accessible from a 'Previews' option in the extras section of the menu.
One of the most impressive things about this Blu-ray release is the quality of the video.
Shot in 35mm, the movie maintains a light amount of grain and a film-like look, but it has the kind of sharpness and detail that one would get in a transfer from a digitally-shot movie. Blacks are deep, and shadow delineation is good. Skin tones and contrast are well-balanced throughout. I detected no issues with noise, banding, or other frequent problems that often occur on HD releases.
Redford gives us some wonderful and interesting visuals in his movie, so it's nice to see his film get such a great transfer here.
The only real issue with the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is that it's underused, but that really has more to do with the type of movie Redford made, than any issues with the track itself.
As you can probably guess, 'The Company You Keep' is a movie that involves a lot of dialogue. Sure, there are suspenseful moments throughout, but not many that fall into the realm of an "action sequence." There are a couple of scenes throughout where we have police sirens blaring or hear the sound of a helicopter – and in those moments, the rear speakers are quite noticeable and directionality is more evident. What's not quite as evident is how the rear speakers are almost always active in scenes, but in very subtle ways – be in the murmuring of extras talking or moving in the background, traffic going by, or just the normal sounds one would get from being in the outdoors. The levels aren't loud enough to give one that immersive feel (I actually had to get closer to my rears to notice that activity was actually going on), but just enough to make the 5.1 worthwhile – although, again, this is still very much a front-heavy track.
Subtitles are available in both English and English SDH.
Well-directed and filled with some wonderful performances, 'The Company You Keep' is certainly worth a look. However, Redford seems to want to water-down his protagonist's back-story and the result is a movie that feels less like the controversial film it might have been and more like a standard 'fugitive on the run' movie. That's disappointing, but 'The Company You Keep' is still solid enough to warrant a rental.