“You’re a f…ing crazy man!”
“And that’s a fact. I believe you’re getting the hang of this.”
Maybe the ironic title says it all: There is no such thing as “A Perfect World.” Clint Eastwood co-stars with Kevin Costner in this offbeat 1993 crime drama, which Eastwood also directed. The story is just as morally ambiguous as its title, which pretty much sums up how moviegoers may react to it. Eastwood has always had a tendency to present multisided views of his subject matter, from “Dirty Harry” to “Unforgiven” and particularly evident more recently in things like “Hereafter” and “J. Edgar,” views not always conducive to producing strong, positive reactions in audiences. Viewers don’t always take to ambiguity; they like their movies and TV shows to offer simple, straightforward answers to life’s problems, where right is always right and wrong is obviously wrong. People seem to find such oversimplifications offer relief from the uncertainties of the real world. Eastwood, however, is not at all keen on proffering easy answers to tough moral dilemmas, and, thus, we get movies like “A Perfect World.” Some of it works; some of it doesn’t.
For reasons somewhat unclear, screenwriter John Lee Hancock sets the opening of the story on Halloween night in Texas, 1963, just a few weeks before the Kennedy assassination. Yet the story is wholly unrelated, as far as I can tell, to the assassination, literally or symbolically, unless Hancock meant the date to show a turning point in America’s societal values. Anyway, it’s 1963 and a hardened criminal, Butch Haines (Costner), is escaping from a Texas prison with a fellow inmate. After breaking out through an air vent, the two of them get away in a stolen car. Then they stop in a small town looking to find a hostage they can take with them, finding an eight-year-old boy to abduct, Phillip Perry (T.J. Lowther), who comes from an ultraconservative religious family without a father.
And off the three go, with a Texas Ranger, Chief Red Garnett (Eastwood), in hot pursuit. The state governor gives Garnett a big, new vehicle for the manhunt, a specially outfitted Airstream trailer filled with electronic equipment to serve as Garnett’s command center. Garnett is an old-school lawman who doesn’t much take to these newfangled things, but he accepts and uses it. Tagging along with him, also much to his displeasure, is a young female criminologist, Sally Gerber (Laura Dern), whom the male-chauvinist officers treat with disdain, and a really creepy federal agent, Bobby Lee (Bradley Whitford), whom nobody much cares for.
Butch soon jettisons his fellow escapee when the cretin tries to abuse the boy, and from then on it’s just Butch and Phillip riding down the dusty Texas roads. Now, here’s the part you’re probably expecting: Butch and the boy develop a kind of father-son relationship, the boy not having a father anymore and Butch having had a difficult upbringing with his own father. Butch treats the boy well, and can’t stand anyone mistreating any child. Before long, the boy becomes the escaped convict’s willing accomplice.
Meanwhile, Red keeps cruising around in his caravan, setting up roadblocks and monitoring his patrols, all the while getting advice he never asked for from the female criminologist.
The movie meanders leisurely along, sometimes threatening to stall altogether; then it will suddenly shoot ahead at a breakneck speed or create moments of extreme tension. This tendency of the movie to move in spurts is at first disconcerting, but one gets used to it. It’s part and parcel of Eastwood’s sometimes sentimental, sometimes action-packed, sometimes reality-oriented directorial style.
The flight through the back roads of Texas reminds one of old-time gangsters of the Thirties, Bonnie and Clyde or Pretty Boy Floyd, for instance. What’s more, the film is not without its sly humor, and there are moments of levity to lighten the load, such as Garnett’s distaste for the Geritol he’s taking or his trailer coming loose from the pickup towing it and crashing on its own through the woods. There’s also an unlikely stop at “Dottie’s Squat ‘n’ Gobble” cafe that adds a touch of spice to the tale.
The fact is, for reasons of his own, Red would rather not be chasing Butch, but the reasons for his reluctance are a long while coming. At the same time, Butch teaches the boy how to have a little of the fun his mother and their religion have never allowed him to have.
Butch is neither a good man nor a bad man but as he says “a breed apart.” Eastwood takes a backseat here, his character intentionally rather easygoing and stereotyped. It’s pretty much Costner’s film, playing a man out of character for an actor who usually sticks with clean-cut, all-American types. Costner, though, is terrific in the role of the antihero and makes the whole film worthwhile. Indeed, it may be the best role of Costner’s career, the armed robber escapee with the blood of several men on his hands who is, nevertheless, clearly a caring, loving, if unpredictable and dangerous man.
While the movie’s conclusion goes on too long (the film overstays its welcome at 138 minutes), it’s hard not to feel something at the end. I’m not entirely sure what the ultimate moral is of this obvious morality tale, but it’s a wonderfully entertaining ride as it plays out. Maybe it has something to do with Garnett’s final words:
“I don’t know nothing. Not one damn thing.”
It appears that Eastwood chose to shoot much of the film under natural lighting conditions, which makes for good realism but not always the best definition. Indeed, the object delineation can be downright soft much of the time, but it is, as I say, probably intrinsic to the original print. The colors are fairly natural, however, deep and lifelike, with strong black levels that can produce some murkiness at times. A light, natural film grain gives the picture a realistic texture.
The lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio remix is not much to talk about because there isn’t much in the film beyond talk. It’s a rather plain-vanilla mix, quiet and clear, with a few environmental noises in the surrounds–birds, wind, the rustle of leaves, that sort of thing. The Chief’s trailer rampaging through the woods offers some convincing sounds as well. Beyond that, it’s not spectacular in any way, just efficient in getting its job done.
There are practically no extras on the disc besides a ton of language choices and subtitles. We do get a widescreen theatrical trailer, although it’s in standard definition. Beyond that, we get a hefty forty-two scene selections; English, French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish subtitles; and English and German captions for the hearing impaired.
As you can see by now, “A Perfect World” is more of a character study than an action film. This is understandable when you consider that the movie Eastwood made just before this one was “Unforgiven,” a Western character study, and the movie he made right after was “The Bridges of Madison County,” another character study. Indeed, most of the films Eastwood has directed have been far more character studies than action films, and it’s to the man’s credit that he does as well as anybody at it. “A Perfect World” will not please everyone because it presents things in shades of gray and takes few easy outs. Don’t expect a thrill ride, just a touching slice of life.