Clint Eastwood is one of the more celebrated directors of the last twenty years. His most crowning achievement, and his best film in my opinion, was Unforgiven in 1992. In the decade of the 2000s, Eastwood would become the most critically lauded of all directors with films like Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, for which he would win his second Oscar for Directing. But he has been at this directing thing for a while, and on occasion his directorial efforts go overlooked.
Perhaps his most overlooked film came on the heels of Unforgiven’s success, a quiet masterpiece called A Perfect World. Set up as a crime drama and an adventure, the picture is much richer and more layered than any standard genre film. Here is a marvelous film about fathers and sons, about the damaging effects of violence on men, and about a boy who was never allowed to go trick or treating.
There are essentially three intersecting narratives in A Perfect World. The first focuses on Butch Haynes (Kevin Costner), a convict who escapes prison as the film opens with another convict, a less intelligent brute, Terry, who Haynes clearly has no patience for. The two men evidently needed each other to escape and have no loyalties otherwise. The two men flee the prison and end up in a small neighborhood, the morning after Halloween, and take a hostage, a young boy named Phillip (T.J. Lowther). Phillip is a sheltered boy living with his mother and sisters in a home ruled by Jehovah’s Witness theology. Backed into a corner, the two men snatch Phillip, steal a car, and head out on the road. Before long, Butch grows tired of Terry and, after a roadside pit stop, “ends” their partnership. This is where the relationship between Butch and Phillip begins to take shape.
The third narrative focuses on Eastwood himself, playing Chief Red Garnett, a Texas Ranger assigned to tracking down Butch and the young boy. Red and Butch share a history, one which unfolds through hints and small tidbits throughout the picture. Along with Red is a team of agents, including one Sally Gerber (Laura Dern), an energetic psyche expert trying to figure out Butch on the fly. The relationship between Red and Butch is an unusual one, but convincing. From a great distance, as they chase each other down, we feel there is a kinship between them as Red was there when Butch was a younger man and began to stray into a life of crime.
A Perfect World is a film about what is unspoken more than what is told. As an audience we gather information on these characters the way we should; there are subtle hints and gestures which tell the history of these men. Butch was clearly mistreated as a boy, is not one prone to violence, sees violence as a last resort. The relationship he has with Phillip surprises the viewer with its touching sincerity and poignant father/son moments. Butch never had a son, and was treated poorly as a son, and he spots an opportunity with Phillip. He wants to treat Phillip as his own son, exorcising demons of his own past. But, alas, the film knows the score and we see in the later moments of the story that Butch is, in fact, still a killer and a criminal and a kidnapper.
As the screws tighten on Butch and Phillip and as Red and his team draw closer, we have grown to respect all the players in this tragic drama. Even Butch. Perhaps Butch most of all. We see through those sublte gestures that Butch’s life was not his own choice, but an avenue for which he had no alternate. Butch cares greatly about Phillip by the end, maybe he even loves him and wishes Phillip was his son. But that is not in the cards.
As a film about violence, A Perfect World takes an interesting stance. There are killings, all of which take place off camera. But there are also moments of violence towards children, seen directly. Eastwood does this to show not the sensationalism of killing and gunplay, but to show the violence in this world that maybe does even more harm in the long run. The violence towards children is partly responsible for shaping criminals not unlike Butch, and Butch understands this. That is why he is sent into a furious rage in the final act of the film when a farmhand abuses his young son.
A Perfect World is, as I said before, a quiet masterpiece. It is a crime-thriller and a road movie that unfolds with the urgency of a family drama. There is humor, action, and a surprisingly abundant heart at the core. Maybe this was lost in the shuffle after Eastwood’s bolder, more popular masterwork Unforgiven the year before; whatever the case, A Perfect World should not be short changed in the Eastwood portfolio. As a crime drama, it is effective and appropriately tense, but as a story of fathers and sons, it becomes something altogether more poignant.
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