A Perfect World is essentially a road movie set in Texas, 1963, three weeks before the John F. Kennedy assassination (an event that subtly hangs over the film with ominous foreshadowing) that recalls a simpler, even more innocent time. Thematically there is much more going on as the film wrestles with father/son relationships, child abuse and religion. The film begins with two convicts making a daring escape from prison only to take refuge in the neighboring suburbs. Terry Pugh (Keith Szarabajka) is the more amoral one as he wants to kill the driver of the vehicle they commandeer to leave the prison. He then later tries to rape a woman whose house he breaks into. The other convict, Butch Hayes (Kevin Costner), steps in before things go too far with Pugh and the woman. Butch even convinces her little boy, Phillip (T.J. Lowther), to give him the handgun that was dropped during the ensuing scuffle.
This is a crucial moment because it establishes early on the instant bond between Butch and Phillip. Despite the circumstances, there is something about Butch that Phillip intrinsically trusts. What this is will become more apparent later on in the film. When a neighbor intervenes unexpectedly, Butch and Pugh kidnap Phillip and take off in a stolen car. Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Clint Eastwood) is called in to track down and bring in the fugitives. However, the Governor (Dennis Letts) assigns him a criminologist by the name of Sally Gerber (Laura Dern). He immediately resents her intellectual approach to the situation as opposed to her being a woman which would have been the norm at the time. He tells her, “This is not a penal escape situation, this happens to be a manhunt. And no talking around in circles is gonna fix all that.” Eastwood immediately establishes an antagonistic relationship between Red and Sally which parallels the antagonistic relationship between Butch and Pugh. In no time at all, both conflicts will be resolved – one amicably, the other violently.
Like many of Eastwood’s characters, Red works on instinct and common sense. He resents authority figures and bureaucracy. He likes to be left alone and do things his own way. He sees Sally as an annoyance and a possible obstacle in his path. However, she clears the air pretty quickly, letting him know that she’s no pushover when she tells him, “But the one thing I won’t do is be your straight man so you can play hero to a bunch of morons who think you’re some kind of hillbilly Sherlock Holmes.” These lines deflate Eastwood’s traditional stoic lawman façade and Red even offers a compromise of sorts. He encourages Sally to speak up and even though he might not agree with her theories, he’s willing to listen. A Perfect World proceeds to cut back and forth between Butch and Phillip’s developing friendship and the partnership between Red and Sally with the two storylines dovetailing finally at the film’s conclusion.
One of the hallmarks of Eastwood’s directorial efforts is an emphasis on character and the relationships that are created between them. This film is no different with John Lee Hancock’s superbly written screenplay. He would go on to adapt Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil for the film of the same name that Eastwood also directed in 1997. Sadly, they haven’t teamed up since but these two efforts are proof that they were a good match for each other. Hancock’s screenplay is filled with clever dialogue, like when Butch tells Phillip his theory about how a car is a time machine. Everything behind them is the past, everything in front is the future and inside the car is the present. “We’re time traveling through Texas,” Butch proudly proclaims. And in a way that’s what the film is doing – taking us back to a time that doesn’t exist anymore, to a time before President Kennedy was killed and when people were more hopeful and optimistic. His assassination (and that of other key figures of the 1960s) changed all that and we watch these events transpiring with the knowledge of how radically history will change in a few short months.
Hancock’s screenplay should also be noted for how well it develops the relationship between Butch and Phillip. Early on, Butch puts his trust in the boy by leaving him and Pugh in the car with the gun while he goes into a store for supplies. Pugh is able to get the drop on Phillip and take the gun away from him only to find out that there are no bullets in it. Butch assumed that this would happen and did not want to see Phillip get hurt. He may be a convict but he is not as heartless as Pugh. In turn, Phillip trusts Butch and stays with him even when he has the option, on a couple of occasions, to escape. Butch makes Phillip feel important and needed. Once they are on the road, having ditched Pugh, Butch refers to the boy as the navigator of the car. Later on, he asks Phillip to scout a car that he is interested in stealing. Butch doesn’t make Phillip feel like a passive observer but encourages him to become involved in their adventures.
Another significant factor in their friendship is Phillip’s lack of a father figure – something that Butch can also relate to and this provides common ground between them. Butch also speaks honestly to the boy. In one scene, when Phillip says that his mother told him his father would return, Butch replies that she lied and that he is never coming back. He doesn’t come out and say it but we sense that Butch knows this from his own personal experience. He also broadens the boy’s horizons by allowing him to experience things that his Jehovah’s Witness practicing mother would never condone, like drinking soda or wearing a Halloween costume and going trick or treating.
The relationship between these two characters works so well not just because of the excellent script but also because of the strong performances from Costner and T.J. Lowther. On the surface, Butch seems like one of Costner’s cocky, cool characters that he is often known for (i.e. Fandango, Silverado or Bull Durham), yet underneath lurks a dark, dangerous streak that surfaces when he sees a child being abused (the sure sign that Butch was probably abused when he was a child as well). Eastwood never lets us forget that Butch is a criminal. Costner is able to balance this element of danger with his trademark charm, like when he helps Pugh differentiate between a fact and a threat in a scene that is slightly threatening because violence is involved but is also funny as well because of the absurd tone. If Costner had any doubts about his character going into this film, Eastwood assured him that movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney weren’t afraid to play convicts and “have a bad side,” the director said, “and I had Kevin play a much harder edge than he has played.”
Lowther matches Costner’s performance with his superb take on a shy, young boy who develops a strong bond with his captor. He has such an expressive face which he uses to great effect during emotional scenes, like the internal conflict that becomes apparent when Phillip is given the chance to escape or stay with Butch. He has been cut off from everything and everyone he knows. He has little choice but to stay with the convict. Lowther doesn’t have too much dialogue but he is able to convey so much with a look and with his expressive eyes. He is more than capable of holding his own with Costner and their scenes together are well-played as we see their friendship develop over time. Eastwood was never interested in playing the sympathy angle with this friendship. He said, “You can’t have him treat the kid as if he’s paternal. I didn’t want it to come off like he’s cuddling the kid.” Above all, the director did not want the boy to “become precious. I wanted an un-Disneyesque kid.”
The script also provides motivation for Red’s personal interest in this case. We learn that the lawman put Butch in juvenile hall when he was young in an attempt to save him from his abusive father but it turned him into a career criminal. Red even paid off a judge so that Butch would stay in longer and so he feels guilty and responsible for what happened to him. Even though he never comes out and says it, one feels that Red wants to be the person to find Butch and try set things right. This backstory also explains the convict’s hatred for any kind of child abuse (Pugh hitting Phillip or a mother physically scolding her two children) and this manifests itself in a particularly strong way towards the end of the film when he and Phillip take refuge in a poor family’s house in what is surely the darkest scene in the film. After witnessing the father repeatedly abusing his little boy, Butch hits and threatens the father, his own rage threatening to boil over. A scene that started off warm and inviting turns into one that is uncomfortable and filled with tension as Phillip sees just how dangerous Butch can be. He ties up the entire family and we see how this affects Phillip as he observes the fear in the eyes of the mother and her child as Butch threatens the father repeatedly.
Phillip stops Butch before anything fatal happens to the family but the question lingers, was he going to kill them or just tie them up so that they couldn’t get away? Regardless, Phillip shoots Butch and runs away, setting the stage for the film’s climatic showdown between Red and Butch. Even here, Eastwood defies our expectations by drawing out the stand-off. The relationship between Butch and the boy continue to play out as he apologizes for shooting him. They have one last emotional conversation and because we have gotten to know these characters, we care about what happens to them. Their final moments are very touching, even moving. Costner and Eastwood finally have a scene together and this is what we’ve been waiting for the entire film. Not much is said between them and this is because we already know their motivations, Eastwood has been building to this moment. Visually, A Perfect World begins and ends the same with a slow motion shot of Butch lying in a field with money floating around him in the wind but by the film’s conclusion we know how and why he got there.
These sequences feel like something out of a dream and coupled with the leisurely pace probably didn’t endear it to mainstream audiences who were expecting another crowd-pleasing popcorn movie like In the Line of Fire. Critical reaction was mixed. In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen wrote, “When John Lee Hancock’s script tries to get heavy and psychological on us, it just won’t wash – the movie is a pipe dream or it’s nothing.” Janet Maslin, in her review for the New York Times, praised Costner’s performance as “absolutely riveting, a marvel of guarded, watchful character revealed through sly understatement and precise details.” In his review for the Boston Globe, Jay Carr praised Lowther’s performance “of few words, most of the important stuff being conveyed by glances ranging from shy to mischievous.” Hal Hinson, in his review for the Washington Post, felt that the film’s protracted showdown between Costner and Eastwood was a “non-event. Yet almost despite itself, the scene works.” Finally, USA Today gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and criticized Costner’s performance: “He’s never quite believable, but he is tolerable in a role that demands a star presence.”
A Perfect World is closer to Unforgiven thematically as both films explore how the sins of the past affect the present with Eastwood playing tortured characters that try to fix old mistakes that had life-altering consequences but end up resolving things violently. In the case of Unforgiven, Eastwood’s character takes an active part in this resolution but with A Perfect World events spiral out of his control. This film is one of his most underrated efforts to date with its almost lyrical approach making it ripe for rediscovery by another generation of filmgoers receptive to an Eastwood film with complex relationships and a tragic conclusion reminiscent of more recent efforts like Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2004).