Directed by Tim Hunter
Produced by Tim Zinnemann and Ron Miller
Screenplay by Charles S. Haas and Tim Hunter
Based on the novel Tex by S.E. Hinton
Cinematography by Ric Waite
Music by Pino Donaggio
Edited by Howard E. Smith
DVD – library (1:43)
There was a time in the early 80s when Disney as a motion picture company was trying to both rediscover and redefine itself. You’d see several movies that seemed to promise more of what they’d already been doing for decades, films like Herbie Goes Bananas and The Fox and the Hound, but you’d also see darker sf/fantasy films like Tron and Something Wicked This Way Comes. You’d even see some real head-scratchers like The Devil and Max Devlin and Condorman, movies that made you wonder “What were they thinking?”
Tex is one of the better results of that period, a movie that was rated PG instead of G, a film that was clearly more mature than most of its Disney predecessors. Based on an S.E. Hinton novel, Tex is the story of two brothers Mason (Jim Metzler, left) and Tex McCormick (Matt Dillon, right) trying to get by in a small Oklahoma town, go to high school, feed themselves and keep under the radar of Child Protective Services: they’re minors living by themselves. Their mom passed away years ago and their father (Bill McKinney), a rodeo star, leaves for long stretches of time while on the rodeo circuit and often “forgets” to send money.
Just to put food on the table, Mason may be forced to give up his dreams of a college basketball scholarship. He’s already sold their two horses in order to have enough money to buy food and have their electricity turned back on. Tex, not even 15 years old, is understandably angry and wants to get the horses back but Mason (probably 17) won’t tell him who bought them. Tex can’t see the big picture. Even if things were closer to normal, he’s going through a lot watching his rich friend Johnny Collins (Emilio Estevez, above right) sail through life despite having a hard-nosed father (Ben Johnson) who doesn’t want his son or daughter Jamie (Meg Tilly) associating with either Tex or Mason. Tex is also getting into trouble at school, hanging out with a guy who deals drugs, and meeting up with a friend who just got a girl pregnant and married her. Pretty salacious stuff for a Disney movie!
So much of Tex works and rings true that you can almost forgive what doesn’t, which unfortunately is a lot. The best part of the film deals with the brothers’ everyday struggles and woes: Tex can’t see past his own hurt at Mason selling the horses. A part of him knows it was the only thing Mason could’ve done yet young teenagers often can’t see practicality of hard choices. In scenes like this, Tex excels.
So too do the performances. With Dillon, a little can sometimes go a long way, but here he does a fine job of tapping into the hurt and confusion of his character. Even more impressive is Jim Metzler as Mason. Metzler makes us think that he really is a teenager making adult decisions for himself and his brother; no one else was around to do it for him. Instead of regretting it or feeling sorry for himself, Mason does what it takes to get the job done. Metzler’s performance is so believable you begin to think he might’ve lived like this for a few years.
What pulls the film down are the numerous plot points that exist only to move us from point A to points B, C, D, etc. There’s a scene in which Tex gets into a car with a friend who’s on his way to iron out a drug deal. Without giving away too much, this scene exists only to set up an emergency situation that will bring Tex and Mason’s father back into the picture. This and other manipulative scenes like it undermine the second half of the film. Whether such scenes are part of the original S.E. Hinton novel, I don’t know, but they were often the trademark of some of the goofier live-action Disney films, especially the comedies. Showing up here, those scenes significantly weaken what had been established as a more mature Disney film.
The constant rich vs. poor contrast between Tex and Johnny quickly becomes tiresome. This is a constant in Hinton’s novels, but the contrast here is obvious and prolonged. So also is the believability factor in many cases. Johnny’s dad really doesn’t know that there’s five teenagers whooping it up just one floor above him? And how many times is it necessary for Mr. Collins to tell Tex and Mason “I don’t want you hanging around my kids anymore”?
Yet Tex works more often than it doesn’t. The other film adaptations of Hinton’s works, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish (both 1983, both starring Dillon), may be more popular, but Tex also deserves a look.
Photos: TMDb, Radiator Heaven