My associations with S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders are entirely filtered through my memory of middle school English classes, which is to say that those associations aren’t entirely positive. You don’t need me to tell you that the way American public schools teach you how to approach art is, at best, misguided. I remember the insistence on pulling very bland and basic metaphors out of a text. A represents B, that sort of thing. Unsurprisingly, this led to me thinking of those books as rather bland and basic as well. That’s the prevailing memory with which I went into Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of The Outsiders. Turns out, it wasn’t a fair one.
To be clear, I don’t think this is the best Coppola film I’ve seen. I prefer the wild abandon of his later work, something like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to the Godfather-era prestige projects. There’s only a dash of the formal creativity he’d fully commit to in more recent years in The Outsiders. What’s there, particularly the instances of superimposition and brief distortion, are exciting and intriguing. But while this isn’t as austere as something like The Godfather or The Conversation, it’s still a bit plain.
The real standout here, of course, is the cast, comprised almost entirely of future stars. Matt Dillon is the clear MVP for me, beautifully embodying the tug between Dallas’ heartfelt paternal instincts and his more childish commitment to petty gang feuds. It’s a fiery performance, but one tempered by a genuine love for the younger kids in his care. His anguish at the death of one of them, and the consequences of his subsequent rampage, is the bloody heart of The Outsiders. More than Ponyboy’s loss of innocence (that rubber-stamped theme we learned about in middle school) the film made me feel for Dallas, a man who lost his long ago. So much of that is down to Dillon’s outstanding performance.
What I think is really admirable about the film is how Coppola refuses the melodramatic or the heightened. The image of these two warring aesthetics (sorry, gangs) can seem a little silly, and it’s easy to imagine a version of The Outsiders that leans into this and ends up resembling West Side Story minus the music. This might not have been a bad thing! But it would have been the easy thing. It’s easy to treat such big, loud emotions as something a little beyond reality. Coppola takes them entirely as real, and it’s to the film’s benefit. It’s true that it still seems a little absurd. But it’s the type of absurdity that arises genuinely from teenagers. That’s the key idea that Coppola hits on with The Outsiders. Yes, the way they see the world may seem ridiculous. But that doesn’t insulate them from tragedy.