Stop me if you've heard this one before: Clint Eastwood as an aging lawman who relies on gut instinct in leading a manhunt for a killer who is not only smarter than Eastwood, but also more complex and interesting. Clint is paired with a feisty female with whom he clashes at first but eventually comes to respect. Eastwood antagonizes his superiors, has a deep-rooted personal stake in the outcome of the manhunt, and despises the by-the-book feds he has to work with, even though they're theoretically on the same side.
You can be forgiven for thinking of In the Line of Fire. But this time around it's A Perfect World, which costars Kevin Costner as an escaped felon who takes a young boy hostage while on the run. Laura Dern plays the Rene Russo part as Eastwood's spunky distaff sidekick, although she doesn't get to play his full-fledged love interest.
Clint is also the director, which probably explains why his on-screen role is about twice as big as the plot would seem to merit. It feels artificially inflated, as if it was originally written much smaller and the director blew it up to match his ego. In fact, Eastwood's Red Garnett, the Texas Ranger leading the hunt for Costner's enigmatic, paternalistic Butch Haynes, is so superfluous to the basic story that the inordinate amount of screen time devoted to his character is an absolute intrusion. The filmmakers try to get around this by saddling Garnett with one of those incredibly coincidental dark secrets from the past to link him to the robber, but it doesn't ring true. The role still feels extraneous; it could easily have been half as long. (That's not to take anything away from Clint the budding thespian; the big guy has been on a roll since Unforgiven, and his performance here is right up there. It's just that Eastwood's Geritol-swilling Ranger is not much of a stretch from his aging Secret Service agent or his semiretired gunfighter.)
Butch Haynes, on the other hand, is a departure of sorts for Costner -- his first major shot at playing a bad guy -- and he does justice to the misunderstood antihero archetype. As with Eastwood's performance, it's not exactly a revelation -- another brooding loner in the Dances with Wolves/Bodyguard mold. And even though Butch is on the wrong side of the law and potentially extremely violent (he was sentenced to 40 years for armed robbery), the filmmakers take great pains to solicit audience sympathy for the fugitive. He was, it turns out, abandoned by his petty criminal father at six and raised in a New Orleans whorehouse by his courtesan mother until, dying of syphilis, she hanged herself in despair when the boy was twelve. Butch kills twice: once as a child to protect his mother when she was being beaten by a stranger and once as an adult to protect Phillip, the kid he snatched after escaping prison. Eastwood and screenwriter John Lee Hancock go out of their way to make you feel like you'd have done the same thing in Butch's shoes.
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You can't help wondering what kind of film this would have been had lesser stars signed on for the leads. Would it have been a leaner, tighter narrative, or would the absence of Costner's and Eastwood's considerable charisma have doomed the project to obscurity? We'll never know for sure, but my suspicion is they wouldn't have wrung much more than a TV network movie-of-the-week out of it without the heavy hitters' involvement.
At any rate, the convict takes an immediate shine to his youthful prisoner (he nicknames the boy Buzz), and an unconventional relationship quickly develops between the two. Fatherless Phillip is both fearful and in awe of Butch, and soon begins to identify with him. Clever and charming, Butch easily wins the kid over. Smart and sensitive, Phillip just as easily worms his way into Butch's heart. In short order Phillip goes from frightened hostage to willing partner, and Butch Haynes goes from deadly escapee to Zen master/big brother, dispensing wisdom like, "This is the present, Phillip. Enjoy it while it lasts." It's a beautiful mutual transformation to behold; eight-year-old T.J. Lowther's subtle conversion from reticent captive to trusting accomplice is a marvel.
At its best, A Perfect World is a thoughtful examination of the nature of family, friendship, and the little quirks of fate that can drastically alter lives forever. While the story works as an old-fashioned chase movie (a comic sequence involving a runaway Airstream trailer stands out), the tenuous emotional ties that bind Butch and Buzz are at the film's heart. It's delicate, intricate business, and Eastwood the director is to be commended for pulling it off. When the bonds between the boy and his new father figure are tested, the explosive sequence of events that unfolds resonates with the tragic inevitability of unvarnished truth. This is definitely not your standard jailbird-on-the-lam movie.
A Perfect World may not be a perfect film, but it's a good one.