Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World is one of the actor/director’s most underrated films. It’s a searing meditation on violence which should be ranked on par with his masterpiece Unforgiven which was made only a year earlier. It’s a crime film, filled with the usual tropes of a prison escapee, and the lawmen out to get him, but it takes its time to establish thematic elements such as child abuse and the effects it has on ones psyche. It’s also a tender story about a child coming of age with a surrogate father figure, who happens to be a criminal, yet their bond is the heart of the story.
Kevin Costner gives one of his finest performances as Butch Haynes, a criminal who, as a young man has gone from one course of trouble to the next. We find out Haynes was raised in a brothel with a loving and caring mother who died early, but he was then taken in by an abusive father which might be where his troubled life of crime stems from.
The film begins with Haynes escaping from prison with another inmate, a psychotic man named Pugh (Keith Szarabaijka) who shares a cell with him but mostly tags along for convenience. After stopping into a nearby Texas town, Pugh goes into the home of a single mother who is also a Jehovah’s Witness and attacks her. Butch stops him, but not before stirring up the neighbours, and in order to escape they take the mother’s small son Phillip (T.J. Lowther) hostage.
“The unique thing about A Perfect World is how it seems to lead us down a route we have seen before about the father/son dynamic of a young man and the stranger he meets.”
It isn’t soon after that Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Eastwood), learns of the prison break and, pursues the fugitives with the help of Governor appointed criminologist Sally Gerber (Laura Dern), and an F.B.I sharpshooter (Bradley Whitford). Meanwhile, Phillip is attacked by Pugh, causing Butch to kill him, leaving the two alone on the road and on the run. We get the sense that Butch is not really a bad guy, but he isn’t all that good either. However he doesn’t mean to harm Phillip, in fact he starts to build a real close bond with him.
The unique thing about A Perfect World is how it seems to lead us down a route we have seen before about the father/son dynamic of a young man and the stranger he meets. Yet it goes down a much darker and messier path than anticipated and this goes back to Butch’s past. Eastwood is very curious about the nature of violence as it applies to Butch, someone who could’ve ended up on the right side of the law if his youth wasn’t tarnished by abuse.
We don’t really see Butch quick to anger or rage, but we do see him react in the moments where he sees children in danger. One instance occurs when Butch reacts to a mother talking sternly to her daughter and son in the car for spilling a drink, then in another scenario, he almost goes off the deep end when he witnesses an old man slapping his grandson repeatedly across the head.
Throughout all of this, Phillip acts somewhat as a conduit for the audience, observing Butch, and admiring him, but also seeing what violence has made him. Phillip almost acts as Butch’s salvation, at one crucial moment saving him from himself, and it’s a heartbreaking act of bravery on his part. As Phillip, T.J. Lowther doesn’t give us a cute kid performance, and he’s asked to take part in some rather dark episodes throughout the film. But we see how his love for Butch grows making the finale very difficult to watch as all films like this must end a certain way once the authorities catch up with them.
“A Perfect World is the type of film that sneaks up on you as to how deep it really is.”
The idea of violence begetting violence is nothing new in movies, as it goes all the way back to when they were first made. We saw the anti-hero criminals born out of the gangster films of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, and we see how if they only weren’t born on the wrong side of the tracks, things could’ve been different for them. Eastwood knows a thing or two about using violence himself as his early spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry films would glorify it.
However, at the time he made A Perfect World we can sense Eastwood’s tone shifting from inhumane and brutal, to thoughtful and introspective. As he did with Unforgiven, Eastwood’s tone is that of melancholy and regret, almost as if he’s trying to strike up a dialogue with the audience and getting to the core of his own relationship with violence.
Though Eastwood was just coming off of an Oscar win the year earlier, A Perfect World mostly went unnoticed save for a few film critics who sang its praises. Today it’s been reevaluated as it should to be as one of his very best, if not his very best.
A Perfect World is the type of film that sneaks up on you as to how deep it really is, which is perhaps why people missed the point in its first release. It wasn’t trying to go for action in the conventional sense, rather it chooses to take its time to really explore what a world of violence can do to a person, and how it might change our attitude towards it.