Judge Clark Douglas is in hot pursuit of a fugitive grilled cheese sandwich.
A harrowing collision with fate.
"Never underestimate the kindness of the common man, Phillip."
Facts of the Case
Robert "Butch" Haynes (Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves) is a fugitive on the run. Through a series of complicated circumstances, he's taken a young boy named Phillip (T.J. Lowther, A Home of Our Own) hostage, a situation Phillip responds to in a surprisingly calm manner. Butch initially regards the kid as little more than a piece of leverage, but it doesn't take long for the criminal to begin developing a fatherly affection for his new traveling buddy. Meanwhile, Texas lawman Red Garnett (Clint Eastwood, Two Mules for Sister Sara) and his associates pursue Butch across the state with unyielding determination.
It's easy to imagine A Perfect World being pitched to the studio: "Two movie stars—Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner—face off against each other! One's a cop, one's a criminal and there's an innocent child caught in the crossfire!" Indeed, judging from many of the reviews that came out around the time of the film's release, it seems that many were expecting some sort of macho throwdown between the old icon and the young sensation. However, A Perfect World is almost entirely disinterested in the notion of allowing the two to square off in a Sergio Leone-style finale. It has bigger things on its mind, and is far more concerned with weighty thematic issues and understated character development than with action.
Though both stars receive prominent billing, Eastwood (who also directed and produced the film) is mostly content to take a backseat and allow Costner's character to dominate the proceedings. At its core, A Perfect World is the story of a complicated relationship between a criminal and a young boy, and it constantly discovers fascinating material in this relationship without ever turning precious or falsely sentimental. The movie never attempts to shy away from the fact that Costner is an unrepentant thief, kidnapper and murderer, but within that firmly-established framework it permits him to demonstrate a certain paternal warmth. There's a good deal of gentle humor in Costner's somewhat misguided efforts to make the kid happy, such as when he takes the boy trick or treating and then pulls out his pistol when the homeowner declares that she doesn't have any candy. However, these smile-inducing moments are offset by scenes in which the chilly reality of the situation is made clear (particularly a horrifying sequence in which Costner overreacts to the actions of an abusive African-American father).
In the years immediately following the acclaimed Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner struggled to find quality material. Consider the films that either bombed artistically, financially or both: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Bodyguard, Wyatt Earp, The War, Waterworld, The Postman…it all adds up to a fairly staggering amount of squandered potential. However, A Perfect World is a film that perfectly understands Costner's screen presence and abilities, and Eastwood's unpretentious, sure-handed direction steers the actor into what just might be his finest performance. The actor handles the character's laconic charm, dangerous intelligence and suppressed emotional volatility with remarkable skill, and he shares a touching chemistry with young Lowther (Costner manages to pull off the tricky task of speaking delicately with Lowther without ever seeming as if he's talking down to him).
The law enforcement side of the tale is slightly less riveting, though Eastwood's steely presence goes a long way towards making the scenes of pursuit engaging (watching the film again, I was struck by what a rare thing it is to see Eastwood in a supporting role). This side of the story serves to advance a lot of plot and give us a clearer idea of how close Costner is to being captured, but it also delivers the film's angriest material in its seething indictment of Texas' good ol' boy system of government and law enforcement. Eastwood and criminologist Laura Dern (Jurassic Park) are level-headed, good-hearted characters, but they quickly find themselves outnumbered by bloodthirsty numbskulls and greedy politicians. The bleak outrage of the film's large-scale climax hardly comes as a surprise, but the grace and serenity Eastwood permits into the scene allows it to transcend mere pulpit-pounding.
There's a certain rawness to the film that lingers with you for a long time afterwards, a carefully-constructed narrative messiness that allows the film to mimic the somewhat inexplicable unpredictability of real life. It leaves room for mood swings, buried secrets, unspoken motivations and emotional spikes to interfere with the course the characters have charted, and deftly avoids becoming the sort of formulaic buddy movie/crime thriller/coming-of-age story it might have been in other hands. While Eastwood's "two or three takes and then move on" approach has occasionally been a liability, in this case it adds to the awkward naturalism of the movie. It's really something special.
A Perfect World (Blu-ray) has received an impressive 1080p/2.40:1 transfer which does a nice job of capturing the film's soothing, sun-soaked palette. It's a gorgeous film on a visual level, taking full advantage of the sprawling Texas landscapes and the dusty atmosphere. Detail is impressively crisp throughout, and blacks are deep and inky during the handful of nighttime sequences. Flesh tones are natural and consistent as well. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is slightly less impressive, though there isn't a lot to work with. Eastwood tends to deliver pretty quiet movies, and this one is no exception. There's not a whole lot going on in terms of sound design, but dialogue is clear and the low-key score is well-mixed. The only supplement is a theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My only significant complaint is that the more blatantly villainous characters (on both sides of the law) are occasionally drawn too broadly. Costner's complicated character aside, if you're a bad guy, you're an irredeemably creepy, sexist jerk who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It's the one area where it feels like Eastwood and screenwriter John Lee Hancock lost control of their rage.
A Perfect World is among Clint Eastwood's finest work as a director; a complex and emotionally involving tale which isn't afraid of digging deeper into the story's darker, more challenging elements. It's not quite like anything else on the director's filmography, and it's a film which still holds up beautifully two decades after its initial release. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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