Directed By: Clint Eastwood
Written By: John Lee Hancock
Produced By: Clint Eastwood, Mark Johnson, David Valdes
Cast: Kevin Costner, T.J. Lowther, Clint Eastwood, Laura Dern, Leo Burmester, Keith Szarabajka
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 138 minutes
Review Date: November 19, 2010
There is a pivotal scene in A Perfect World that finds escaped convict Butch Haynes (Kevin Costner) responding to a woman’s assertion that he is a good man: “No, I ain’t a good man. I ain’t the worst, neither.” As a piece of dialogue, it may be a little too on-the-nose, but as a summation of the tricky drama at the heart of John Lee Hancock’s very good script, it works beautifully.
As a director, Clint Eastwood is at his best when he methodically breaks down genres or archetypes. This is why films like Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josey Wales hold up so well. For all their genre trappings, they are quiet films — punctuated by bursts of violence — that demythologize the idea of the honorable gunman that so many westerns have advanced over the years. With A Perfect World, Eastwood unraveled the traditional manhunt film, offering up a clear-eyed look at the virtues and faults of not just Butch, but also a criminal justice system struggling to keep up with the changing world of the early ’60s.
Butch Haynes is a career criminal who escapes from prison with his cellmate Terry (Keith Szarabajka). Terry is as wild as Butch is thoughtful and in control of his emotions. When looking for a car to steal to make their getaway, Terry stumbles across a suburban family that includes eight-year-old Phillip (T.J. Lowther) and his mother (Jennifer Griffin). Terry immediately attempts to rape the mother before Butch bursts in and beats the hell out of him. The commotion gets the attention of the neighborhood, so Butch decides to take Phillip hostage to get away. After parting ways with Terry, Butch finds himself growing fond of Phillip, seeing many parallels between the boy and his own childhood. As Butch imparts his own brand of life lessons to the impressionable boy, Phillip finds himself viewing Butch as the father figure he lacks.
Hot on the trail of Butch and Terry are Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Clint Eastwood) and criminologist Sally Gerber (Laura Dern). Red is a hard-nosed investigator who always gets his man. He’s also a traditional alpha male, not used to having his wisdom questioned. His old-school ways of enforcing law and order clash with Sally’s attempts to find Butch by understanding him as a damaged human being. Along for the ride is a redneck FBI agent (a nearly unrecognizable Bradley Whitford) who thinks they’re both full of crap and is more interested in getting to know Sally better, whether she wants him to or not.
There are no clichéd characters in the film. Butch is not an honorable criminal who only commits crimes to survive. He has made a conscious choice to be a criminal because it’s what he’s good at. On the other hand, he’s not a villain. He tries to instill values in Phillip and raise the boy’s self-esteem. He just has his own odd ways of doing so. At the same time, Red is not so stuck in his ways that he is unwilling to listen to Sally’s opinion, sometimes taking her advice and sometimes ignoring it, but he always has a reason for doing either one. He believes in honor, but realizes that there can only be three possible outcomes to the search and none of them are happy. It would be easy to peg Phillip and Sally as the innocents in the film, having their eyes opened to the reality of the world. But Eastwood and Hancock steer them away from such stereotypes. Phillip knows he shouldn’t look up to Butch, but after spending his whole life in religious repression, he’s having too much fun to look away. At the same time, Sally may sympathize with Butch, but she knows he has to be stopped.
That’s what is so refreshing about A Perfect World — there are no easy answers. Much like Unforgiven, there are no good guys or bad guys. There are just people encompassing both good and bad traits and trying their best to deal with the hand dealt them. Much is made of a key point in Butch’s past that may have sent him on the path to becoming a criminal. The idea is briefly played with that if a different decision had been made by a judge, Butch might have become an upstanding citizen. But that can never be known. Butch could have gone either way, much as Red probably could have as a young man, and the same with Phillip as he grows older. As a director, Eastwood knows this and he makes sure that his characters know it.
A Perfect World is an uncompromising film that never allows the viewer to ever feel comfortable. Not only is it impossible to fit the characters into any Hollywood mold, it’s unbearably suspenseful. Scene upon scene finds the threat of violence hanging over the characters. Thankfully, Eastwood occasionally deflates that tension with some well-placed humor. In fact, the only point where the film feels like a studio product is in the unnecessarily epic score by Lennie Niehaus. Where the score should have been intimate and subdued, Niehaus goes for intrusive and grandiose. It’s a frustrating misstep in an otherwise great film. Still, fine performances by Costner, Lowther, and Eastwood combine with Hancock’s insightful screenplay to create an intelligent, fascinating film that resonates emotionally, as well as intellectually. Seek it out.
Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.