Watching A Perfect World now, it feels like a lost Clint Eastwood movie. It won a lot of critical praise at its release, and Cahiers du cinéma selected it as their film of the year, but it’s rarely talked about.
Eastwood remains hard to pin down as a director. In any mode, he’s workmanlike, not a technician: first take’s good enough, let’s move on. On occasion, it can feel like he’s straight out of the old studio system, handed scripts that must be executed as competently enough to get a good crowd and please at least some of the critics. (And he’s always better at the first part. Eastwood can make a bad sentimental film that’s still enjoyable, but his failure mode for prestige pictures comes close to being mind-numbing–and I say that as one of the three people in the world who actually kind of liked J. Edgar.) But sometimes, his directorial style meshes perfectly with his chosen themes–usually working class masculinity and dogged professionals and grappling with lost chances–and you get, say, Unforgiven. Or A Perfect World.
A Perfect World has less cachet than Unforgiven, because it has an adorable child in it and it has that expansive mainstream audience feel that makes it easy to like. But this isn’t a case of a movie just having a glossy, appealing surface and some by-the-numbers pleasures. It executes its story with nuance and depth and follows its characters to some sad, strange, and dark places even as the visuals resolutely lean towards sunlit Americana. This is a world that looks perfect, but the people in it know better. They’re acutely aware of everything that should have been different but now can never be.
The film centers on Butch (Kevin Costner), an escaped criminal whose danger, intelligence, and personal warmth all jostle uneasily side-by-side. When Butch breaks out of prison in the company of his more crudely violent cellmate, the two of them wind up taking a child as a hostage. It’s his partner who fucks things up to the point where they require one–he breaks into a quiet suburban house and tries to rape a woman, but not before, in one of the movie’s more unnerving details, he forces her to cook him some eggs. It’s a completely selfish sadism: why not get everything he’s been missing in prison all in one place? Butch intervenes, stopping it–ah, yes, he’s the Crook With a Heart of Gold. And he almost is. But he’s the one who swings immediately into the cold strategy of using the woman’s son, Philip (T.J. Lowther), as a human shield and a key part of his exit strategy. He’s not a cruel man, but there’s a streak of ruthlessness in him, and it slowly becomes clear over the course of his movie that his civility and Southern politesse can easily collapse into violence. There’s real heart beneath all that–and we can see how quickly he grows genuinely attached to Philip–but in between surface and depth is a no man’s land of prison-honed hardness.
Philip’s family are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and he pines a little for the trick-or-treating he’s just been denied, for the carnivals he couldn’t go to, for the Christmases and birthdays he never had. He thinks cotton candy is red. It doesn’t take long for him to start seeing his trip with Butch as a kind of wild adventure. He has no father, so Butch takes on the role of one, sometimes feeling like one those dads on an every-other-weekend custody arrangement, someone trying to squeeze in as many memorable joys and significant conversations in as possible, since he knows his time is short. In particular, he takes Philip trick-or-treating (since it’s after Halloween, a gun is required to emphasize the point, and Philip scores some Wonderbread). They love each other, by the end, but that can’t stop what’s coming. It can’t stop the manhunt after Butch, and it can’t stop the fact that Philip can still see that Butch is dangerous.
The manhunt in question is led by Clint Eastwood himself, playing Red Garnett, rawhide-tough on the surface and snappily self-confident. He mostly plays off Sally (Laura Dern), a criminologist sent by the governor, and at first he projects a sense of blithe down-home superiority that make Dern’s scenes feel like they’re a mirror for Jodie Foster’s in Silence of the Lambs. But Sally’s empathetic understanding of Butch quietly wins Red over to her, and eventually he tells her what he seems to have told no one else: he’s responsible for the cruelly long juvie stay that helped turn Butch into a career criminal. Butch’s father was an abusive habitual criminal, and Red guessed that going home on probation would only give the man a chance to make his son worse. A stint in juvie, on the other hand, might straighten him out, give him a chance.
Gatesville wasn’t so bad. I’ve known kids there who stayed straightened up. One even became a priest… In Texas, the bottom line is who you know, and what they owe you. It’s how I do my job; it’s how you got your job… I bought that judge a T-bone, and I told him to send the boy up. I told him it was the right thing to do. Judge went with me, right down the line.
It’s nothing but fathers and sons all down that line, bad and good, obvious and surrogate. There are a few jokers in the deck, but you hardly need them: this is a fallen world even when it’s not an obviously chaotic one, even when it’s not full of bad intentions. It’s a film full of well-observed moments, endearing and quirky, comedic flesh on tragic bones. You need rocket-ships and Halloween and love to make life worth living, but it’s the fact that it’s worth living, that the sweetness was real, that it makes it hurt so much to lose it. Getting it right some of the time makes the mistakes worse. So we end with Red, his bluster gone, seeing us out: “I don’t know nothin’,” he says. “Not one damned thing.”
A Perfect World is available for streaming on HBO Max.