A PERFECT WORLD
A year after taking home the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director for Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood returned behind the camera and directed a small, yet effective film that disappeared amidst the afterglow of his Western opus. The film was A Perfect World, an intimate blend of action, adventure, fatherhood, and violence that came and went without much fanfare, but should be recognized for its power and the everlasting themes of violence and parenthood that permeate beneath a strong bit of storytelling from Eastwood and others involved.
Set in the early sixties, the film stars Kevin Costner (just two years removed from taking home his own set of statues for Dances With Wolves) as Butch Haynes, a criminal who, as we see in the opening of the film, escapes a Texas prison with an accomplice that he doesn’t much care for. It isn’t long before the two escaped cons end up in a small town at daybreak. For lack of a better option, Butch and his accomplice kidnap a young boy from his family, a family consisting of a mother and two older sisters, and flee in a stolen car.
The kidnapping catches statewide attention and United States Marshal Red Garnett (Eastwood), a confident, seasoned Texas diplomat, is assigned to bring the boy in safely. With the assistance of a young, confident criminologist (Laura Dern) and a team of deputies and federal agents, Red is in hot pursuit. What is set in place here is a perfect formula for a cat and mouse chase film across the plains of Texas, but what unfolds is much more intimate, and much more impacting than any formula picture.
It isn’t long before Butch dispatches of his fellow escapee, leaving him and the young boy, Phillip, to travel across the plains of Texas. This is where the meat of the story takes place, as Butch and Phillip become familiar at first, friendly as the days go along, accomplices at times, and ultimately adversaries once a certain amount of threat becomes inevitable. Phillip is played by T.J. Lowther, an actor whom we don’t see much of beyond this picture, but who was perfect in this role. Young Phillip is a sheltered boy, held under a tight rule by his deeply religious mother who won’t allow things such as celebrating Halloween. Phillip also has no father in his home, which is where Butch obviously steps in.
Costner portrays Butch as a hardened criminal, a murderer, one who still knows right from wrong but never had much of a shot of being a good person his whole life. He understands violence, and somewhere in his head he has separated the notion of killing from the core motivations of violence. Butch never had a father figure in his life; at least not one worth his salt, and he recognizes that lack of guidance in young Phillip. The bond these two fatherless figures share therein creates a bond that will ultimately unravel in the face of a society and rules that takes a back seat during the second act of the film, a second act that sees Phillip grow and evolve, and sees Butch find a human side that was undoubtedly repressed during his numerous long stints behind bars.
More than an examination on fatherhood, namely fatherhood during the middle of the twentieth century, A Perfect World is an interesting commentary on the nature of “true” violence. There is violence against children more than once in this film, and Eastwood chooses to display these acts completely on the screen. However, the shootings take place off camera, recognizable only by the sound of a gunshot. In doing this, Eastwood places more importance on domestic, physical abuse than gun violence, something greatly exploited in the eighties and nineties in Hollywood. The violence against children enrages Butch, giving the viewer a further glimpse both into his own father’s abuse, as well as explaining how someone so caring and sympathetic toward Phillip could have been conditioned to be a violent man.
Eastwood filmed A Perfect World primarily during the day, and the camera captured the sun-bleached starkness of a rural Texas Autumn. He also manages to get the best performance of Kevin Costner’s career. While the end of the film may be inevitable, it is the journey that captures the audience and does the almost impossible job of creating sympathy and fright in the single existing character of Butch Haynes.
On the heels of Unforgiven, Eastwood’s Texas road drama became lost in the shuffle and overwhelmed by films seen as much more intriguing. A Perfect World had none of the controversy of The Crying Game, none of the immediate social importance of Philadelphia, none of the built in fan base of Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones’ The Fugitive, and none of the overwhelmingly powerful scope of Schindler’s List, all films that were the staples of important 1993 cinema. Nevertheless, Eastwood was able to capture a time and a place, as well as an attitude and indictment, of parenthood and violence in rural America with a pitch perfect film with a title that, after viewing the film, carries its own melancholic impact...