The Outsiders is Francis Ford Coppola’s epic greasers-vs-socs melodrama — his “teenage Gone With the Wind,” to quote the director’s commentary. Visually rich, overflowing with end-of-innocence symbolism and Americana iconography, the movie is a charged and earnest adaptation of the seminal SE Hinton young adult novel.
The Outsiders has gone down as a bit of a cult classic for two reasons — both of them very good reasons to remember this film.
The first is that the young cast is bursting with charismatic actors who would go on to long careers: Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, C Thomas Howell, and more. It’s almost too many cooks in the kitchen — Estevez and Cruise are particularly shortchanged in the theatrical cut.
The second reason this film stands out from the glut is its tenderness and intimacy: These boys (especially Macchio and Howell) get to be soft and poetic and talk about their feelings and sunsets and love and stuff. Whether you read this as homoerotic, a deconstruction of teen male machismo, or both is in the eye of the beholder.
In 2005, Coppola released a extended version, called the “Complete Novel” cut. It’s an apt title, as it restores nearly every scene streamlined or trimmed from the source novel. I reread the book after watching both cuts, and it’s almost a scene-for-scene match to the Complete Novel cut. This longer cut of the film is richer, with more emphasis on side characters, but it does add some flab: a few bits of exposition become redundant and a few moments feel inessential.
The other major change of the Complete Novel cut is that it swaps out the mediocre orchestral score penned by Coppola’s father with lots of surf rock. I think the move is mostly lateral — while the original score was a bit overbearing, the new cues don’t quite tonally fit, either — the surf rock is a bit too low key for an emotionally large film.
The film is pretty strong from start to finish, although some of the narrative elements in the second half (a burning church; a muddy, impressionistic brawl) work almost entirely on thematic levels rather than narrative ones. In other words: the plot gets a bit screwy, though it retains the feeling.
The cast is all very good, but Macchio in particular is sublime as Johnny Cade, a much-abused kind soul. His disarming but intense charisma makes me wonder why he didn’t go on to more of a career in prestige dramas racking up award nominations — he clearly has the chops.
It’s not quite a pantheon entry — a bit too clunky and routine for most of its opening — but The Outsiders captures the gut-punch of teenage angst beautifully and is a worthy adaptation.