1990s, 3.5/4, Clint Eastwood, Drama, Review

A Perfect World

#10 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.

Clint Eastwood could have retired after Unforgiven, and I don’t think anyone would have blamed him. It was a pinnacle of his career that he was unlikely to ever match. However, Eastwood is a workhorse, and he put out another film the next year from a script by John Lee Hancock. A Perfect World may not be Unforgiven levels, but it indicates to me that Eastwood had reached another level in his directing career and that his previous film wasn’t a fluke. His output through the 80s wasn’t exactly remarkable with a fair amount of middling fare throughout , but with White Hunter Black Heart it felt like Eastwood was becoming more ambitious and choosing to film more sophisticated scripts to make.

Butch (Kevin Costner) and Terry (Keith Szarabajka) escape from prison in Huntsville, Texas and end up at the house of a single woman with three children. Gladys (Jennifer Griffin) is a Jehovah’s Witness who won’t let her children take part in Halloween. Terry breaks into her house, gets a little too physical, and Butch comes in to stop the potential violence. However, confusion breaks out when Gladys’ neighbor comes in brandishing a shotgun leading to Butch and Terry taking Gladys’ son, Phillip (T.J. Lowther). Terry is something of an outright psychopath, so Butch ends up acting as Phillip’s protector, forming a quick bond in the situation with the boy. The news of the breakout and kidnapping becomes the concern of the Texas Rangers, namely Chief Red Garnett (Eastwood) who takes a new, high-tech (for the early 60s) camper on the road to perform the chase and investigation. Along for the ride is Sally Gerber (Laura Dern), a criminologist from the governor’s office assigned to help.

Now, this is something of a chase movie, but it moves steadily without any sort of breakneck pace. It has its action-like moments, but overall it’s a movie that’s far more concerned with its characters than the chase itself. And the focus of those characters ends up being a pair of relationships: Butch and Phillip along with Red and Sally. Both Butch and Phillip have father figures that were either no good or simply absent. They end up forming a sort of father/son bond between them as Butch protects Phillip, offers himself up as a role model, and presents Phillip with the kind of low-cost rule breaking amidst the larger rule-breaking that makes Butch’s life seem enticing to a young boy. At the same time, getting past the easy sexism stuff of Red bringing on Sally, the two end up forming a relationship that allows Red to open up about his own past connected with Butch, having potentially put him on the path he’s on now years previously.

There’s a lot of talk about the titular “perfect world”, brought up first in how the search would operate in a perfect world (first with more resources and then without the need for a search at all), and the film ends up taking the idea and playing with it in a whole series of implicit variations. The most prominent is Butch’s journey as a whole. He’s going to places in his past on his way towards Alaska where his father supposedly is, and he’s offering himself up as father figure to a young boy without one. They are trying to create their own little perfect world as they go, and it’s doomed to failure.

Never mind that Butch is on the run from the police, there’s something in Butch that won’t let him have it. Whether he was born with his badness, inherited from his father, or it was ingrained in him when Red greased the skids to get him into an extended stay at a notoriously difficult juvenile hall for a minor crime when he was fourteen, Butch is not a good man. He’s smart and charming, but he’s also got a violent streak that he can’t truly escape from (echoes of William Munny in Unforgiven). We see this in smaller, less directed ways like when he escapes from a small town by ramming his car into police cars to escape, but it comes to a pointed head that even Phillip can’t unsee when they spend a night and morning in the house of Mack (Wayne Dehart), his wife Lottie (Mary Alice), and grandson Cleveland (Kevin Jamal Woods). Mack physically abusees Cleveland a bit (smacking him hard in the back of the head when he needs to repeat himself), and Butch simply breaks at that. He ends up taking the family hostage, escalating the situation until Phillip has to make a choice. It’s the crashing down of the fantasy of that perfect world, and it leads to all of the principles coming together in one place to end the film.

I wish the ending were smaller and quieter. I don’t like how it goes all big emotion in the final moments, instead of letting things play out a bit more naturally. The embrace of theatrics ends up giving this a false quality that I really don’t think works very well. The scene around it is very good, but that big moment just doesn’t work.

Still, there’s so much to really appreciate in this little, easy-going chase of a film across Texas. Performances are very nice from everyone. The young Lowther isn’t given a ton of dialogue, and I would bet that was an on-the-set solution where the kid nodding looked better than him saying “yes” half the time. It’s a good use of the limitations of a child’s performance. Eastwood has that wonderful combination of world-weariness and wit that he had managed to carry so well, especially once he made it obvious that he understood he was getting older. The film really belongs to Costner, though. He really does everything to make the audience like him, to hide his psychopathy behind a veneer a easy going charm and some real concern for Phillip.

This is a very good film, a worthy follow up to the rather staggering achievement that was Unforgiven, showing that Eastwood wasn’t done producing quality films and that he was going to keep working at his own pace for as long as he wanted. He wasn’t just a movie star directing movies anymore, he was an artist, and he made a touching little movie to keep himself going.

Rating: 3.5/4

7 thoughts on “A Perfect World”

  1. It’s an ok drama. I didn’t really connect to the characters. I appreciate that it is giving depth to a bad man and yet still showing that he is a bad man, but Kevin Costner was full into his wooden phase and I didn’t enjoy much about him. I realize Butch is a wish fulfillment for someone, maybe the screenwriter, but…nah.

    Two things I do appreciate: Phillip choosing to shoot Butch to prevent him for killing someone else and I appreciate the FBI agent getting beaten up.

    This does show that Clint’s directing skills were increasing, that Unforgiven wasn’t an accident or due to collaborator’s efforts solely.

    I can see people liking this movie but it’s not what I watch movies for.

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    1. I don’t see Costner as wooden here. I see him as disarmingly charming.

      The most frustrating thing about Eastwood the director is his seemingly complete inability to improve a script. He sees something interesting in there, films it really quickly, and moves on. There’s value to that, but it leads to far too many misses. I don’t think this is one, though.

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      1. I think Clint considers himself more of a ‘working man’ than an auteur, he just likes to make movies, he has a set group of people he works with and he just…goes to work with them. Maybe he can’t elevate a script but…ah..many other HIGHLY PRAISED directors have the same flaw.

        It all comes down to writing and performances in the end. You put, say, Beverly Garland or Vincent Price in even a crap Roger Corman film with rubber monsters and you’ll get something watchable.

        I almost think the director’s job is to get out of the way of the script, rather than trying to embellish it.

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      2. As the primary author (just way too many examples of directors being able to change stuff willy-nilly on set from the script for me to consider any other role as the primary author of a film), it’s ultimately in the director’s control before anyone else.

        I don’t expect all director’s to take their scripts and spend a year on it before even getting to formal pre-production to make sure everything’s perfect, but there are times when it feels like Eastwood was choosing scripts on the flimsiest of reasons, knowing full well that everything around his reasons weren’t that good, and he just plowed forward anyway. We can get into this more as we get into the late 90s with stuff like True Crime or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but there are problems on the script level that I feel like any responsible director would have demanded fixes before agreeing to film. Go make something else while the writer spends a few months on a new draft, sort of thing.

        Still, he can find stuff with rough edges that ends up shining anyway, so it’s a double-edged sword.

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