A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Meanest Man in Texas is a faith-based film based on the true story of convicted killer Clyde Thompson (Mateus Ward of Disney XD's Lab Rats), who eventually finds God and becomes an inspirational figure. Thompson's turnaround is a story worth telling, but parents might find his portrayal tricky: He's presented as a sympathetic character from the get-go who's wrongly set up and then hardened by a cruel prison system -- repeating his crime in what's shown to be a kill-or-be-killed type of environment. As played by Ward, Thompson becomes an aspirational character. He makes smoking look cool and killing look tough, as if they're masculine traits. In one scene, Thompson emasculates a prison guard for not having the guts to shoot him, and the guard is immediately fired. While blood is minimal, the film is still very violent, with heartless stabbings, shootings, beatings, and whippings. Cursing is rare, but it's still surprising to hear "ass" and "s--t" in a Christian film. Parents may also be skeptical of the message that a woman's love can turn around the life of a misunderstood killer.
What's the story?
Based on Don Umphrey's same-named nonfiction book, THE MEANEST MAN IN TEXAS follows Clyde Thompson (Mateus Ward), a convicted murderer who took eight lives and gained a nasty reputation. During a lengthy stay in solitary confinement, Thompson reads the Bible, and his life starts to change for the better.
Is it any good?
This drama is earnest, it's true, and it has the power to be effective -- if only it were good. A plot about God's salvation can't be any more direct than when a preacher's prodigal son is saved from the electric chair, saved from a prisoner's shiv, saved by a warden's bullet, and saved from serving multiple life sentences. But first-time feature director Justin Ward doesn't deliver on the promise of the title: Thompson never comes off as the ornery cuss that he must have been at some point, especially as he's portrayed by Ward's son Mateus. When Thompson is "mean," Mateus Ward presents it as cool: He's Texas tough, able to take any abuse without a whimper, and James Dean chic with tousled hair and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The film wants to have it both ways, but Thompson can't be a sexy, misunderstood scapegoat while also serving as proof that a coldblooded irredeemable killer can do a 180.
Once Thompson requests that Bible to read, his years-long transformation happens in a near-instantaneous movie montage: He befriends the prison guards, gets two degrees, and becomes the toast of both prison and religious institutions. Like a trail of breadcrumbs, The Meanest Man in Texas drops one-liners of all the interesting areas that could have been explored: how those with less means or education get harsher sentences, how the system hardens rather than reforms, how prisons treat inmates inhumanely, and how employers discriminate against the disabled. Instead, the message the film chooses to deliver is completely watered down, and the entire effort comes off as disingenuous. It's like the filmmakers are less interested in telling Thompson's remarkable story and more interested in bolstering their careers by creating moments that will look good on a sizzle reel.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the purpose of jail. Do you think its intention is to reform or to serve as retribution? People refer to prison sentences as "paying off your debt to society" -- what does that mean? Do you think our current prison system rehabilitates convicts?
Thompson describes his initial conviction as being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. Do you think Clyde could have better handled what went down? Do you think he was punished fairly?
How was Julia Perryman discriminated against in The Meanest Man in Texas? How does she demonstrate perseverance? Why is that an important character strength?
Do you think Clyde Thompson is a role model? Why or why not?
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