Reel Rewind: Why “A Perfect World” is a perfect movie

By: Luke Parker, Columnist
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In a perfect world, the events of Clint Eastwood’s tactfully simple 1993 film could never happen. On the surface lies a collection of varying hijacks, murders, abductions, and robberies.  But lurking underneath are the remnants of a haunting past which binds all of these acts and each of this world’s characters together.  Even its time and place – Texas, just weeks before President Kennedy’s assassination – reek of needless tragedy.  Both bitter and sweet, “A Perfect World” is a poignant viewing experience, one which offers us entertainment with its discreet wit and simple approach, but commandeers our respect with its spirit.

On all levels, this is a mature production. Reigned by Eastwood, then 63 years old and fresh off of an Oscar victory with “Unforgiven,” and starring Kevin Costner, who only two years earlier won his own Oscar for “Dances with Wolves,” “A Perfect World” contains minimal action for a film based off of a manhunt, and has no time for recklessness. The adventure shared between captor and captive, which is really the focus of the movie, is understood and clearly presented thanks to a lifetime of experiences.

Costner’s character, Butch Haynes, was dealt a bad hand growing up, drifting into trouble and winding up with a sentence thought to be of help.  Years later, he escapes with another convict and after breaking into a family’s home, they take Philip (T.J. Lowther), an 8-year-old boy, hostage. The second felon is quickly taken out of the picture, and soon enough, the man and the boy are hightailing it across the never-ending back roads of Texas.

Leading the pursuit are Eastwood as Red Garnett, Chief of the Texas Rangers during an election year, and criminologist Sally Gerber, played by Laura Dern.  She’s new to the game, and while Red and the other men involved make sure she remembers that, she proves capable of handling herself.  She’ll eventually call Red out for playing “hillbilly Sherlock Holmes” for a bunch of morons, earning his respect in the process.  Theirs’ is the second most vibrant relationship of the film.

The first is that of Butch and Phillip at the heart of “A Perfect World.”  Watching Butch tell Phillip, a Jehovah’s Witness, that he has a “red, white and blue American right to eat cotton candy and ride roller coasters” is one of the best moments in the movie. Another takes place as Butch explains how the car they have stolen is also a time machine.

You cannot possibly guess where their relationship is heading, and as it unfolds, the places where it could slip into the trap of banality become clear.  But they never do, thanks almost entirely to Costner’s lead performance as the lifelong criminal both grounded by his healed scars and unearthed by his deeper ones.

A plot like this has many opportunities to turn into mush, but “A Perfect World” avoids sentimentality at all turns.  It is built, instead, on a series of unraveled secrets that allow for Butch and Phillip to be brought closer together as they trot towards the film’s devastating climax.  

Writer John Lee Hancock immerses the picture and its characters with an ever-emerging past that not only won’t go away, but formulates their destinies.  It is a powerful, almost hypnotizing effect.

Don’t believe me? Well watch Phillip, who is given the choice to leave Butch behind, jump into his speeding car with a stolen Halloween costume under his shirt, and then tell me I’m wrong. You can’t blame Phillip though, because, as twisted as it sounds, you want the boy to escape with the hijacking, murdering, thieving jailbird too.


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