The Outsiders (1983)

Francis Ford Coppola | 2hr 16min

It is hard not to attribute much of Francis Ford Coppola’s success with The Outsides to the source material, S.E. Hinton’s pivotal coming-of-age novel of the same name, which took a thoughtful interest in the male bonding and vulnerability of its characters. While Coppola’s adaptation is not without its beautiful directorial flourishes, perhaps one of the more impressive parts is its cast, stacked with famous faces at the start of their careers including Tom Cruise and Matt Dillon, as well as some core members of the Brat Pack. Most of them are up to the job of balancing the toughness and sensitivity of their characters, even as some patchy, awkward line deliveries from the younger actors stick out above the rest.

With Bob Dylan featuring heavily in the film’s soundtrack, The Outsiders is well-grounded in the cultural turmoil of 1960s America. When Coppola strays from needle drops and starts using original music to underscore scenes, the drama doesn’t mesh quite as well. The use of a pumping, rock ‘n’ roll guitar riff after Darry hits Ponyboy for the first time undercuts a moment of sincere sadness, and one can’t help think that dead silence would have better served this scene. The same goes for an upbeat rock track that plays during the ambush of Ponyboy and Johnny, which ends in an awful effect of red blood pouring down the screen.

A fantastic use of a split diopter lens at a crucial moment.
Another nice piece of blocking and composition here, fragmenting the frame to separate characters.

Still, Coppola’s eye for composition hasn’t completely disappeared since his golden years. There is a great use of a split diopter shot opening the attack scene with Ponyboy in the foreground and the Socs’ car rolling up in the background, and another similar shot that captures Johnny and the dead body behind him to end the sequence, both of which serve to separate him from the rest of the world. When the two boys escape to the church the narrative slows down, and Coppola matches the shift in tone with long dissolves and languid montages showing the bonding taking place. Coppola brings some nice touches to this novel adaptation, but even as it stands today as a cultural touchstone for a generation, the odd misstep marks it as the beginning of Coppola’s descent into less-than-outstanding filmmaking.

Male bonding and vulnerability set in a splintering American culture.

Grade: Recommend (Outside top 10 of the year quality but still worth study and appreciation)

The Outsiders is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

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