Two Oscar winning directors, Clint Eastwood (who also takes the reins here) and Kevin Costner, make a return to acting in A Perfect World. The film is an underrated instalment in Eastwood’s behind-the-camera canon, and features one of Costner’s most nuanced performances. Costner’s ‘Butch’ Haynes is Eastwood’s subject, a character whose past and psychology is a constant moral grey area. He is a petty criminal turned murderous fugitive, a contrast to his obvious intelligence and strong moral stance, an ideology he asserts tactfully in the issue of child rearing, and in ironically violent fashion to refute domestic violence. Through his moral turmoil, he remarkably remains likeable, funny and fatherly in his interaction with abducted hostage Philip (T.J. Lowther), affectionately known as ‘Buzz’. In addition to Butch’s violently paradoxical character, we have Eastwood’s ‘Red’, a more ambiguous but equally conflicted figure, who was responsible for elongating Butch’s prison sentence, an act of corruption committed out of concern for his welfare at home, an alluded-to environment which explains the convict’s hatred for domestic violence.
A Perfect World slots itself neatly in line with a long cinematic history of dual-headed road movies, particularly recalling Paper Moon and Bonnie and Clyde, the former in the central child/adult comic relationship, and the latter in its continuation of counter-culture sensibilities. The Butch/Buzz relationship is repeatedly touching and cute, all the more so for its unlikely aspect. It makes us forget that Butch is a convicted felon and not a perfect paternal influence, despite the shared experience of both characters with their absent father figures. As the title suggests, this is not a neat or ‘perfect’ relation of character, situation and events. It is, like most of life, an approximate patchwork of imperfect personas and unfortunate cases, an inconsistent line of best fit that callously disregards the outliers. In A Perfect World, these anomalies are given voice, and their relatable, humorous interaction is humbling. While it has nothing like the bite of Bonnie and Clyde, the aversion to government still resonates – government officials are shown to be inefficient, money-squandering, bribe-accepting, spin-doctoring manipulators of resources and media. Against these inauthentic bureaucracies, we’ll take Costner’s loveable rogue any day.
Eastwood’s sensitive rendering of Philip’s character, an indoctrinated Jehovah’s Witness who relishes letting his hair down with the unadulterated Butch, is one of the film’s major triumphs. There’s several extended close-ups on Philip in the midst of a particularly emotional moment, a technique which could feel manipulative in less genuine hands but instead they feel like authentic, key junctures in Philip’s steep learning curve.
Eastwood skilfully weaves Butch’s fugitive tale with those chasing him, a motley crew featuring a reliably annoying turn from Laura Dern (when is she anything less than mildly irritating?) and Josh from The West Wing before he was Josh from The West Wing (Bradley Whitford). It’s a strange mix, made stranger by their vehicle of choice: a politicised mobile home helmed by old grisly stare himself. It’s a choice of setting which ensures the government, even when diluted to lower-level groundwork, still has a constant air of the ridiculous.
On the remaining sidelines, we have the film’s opening sequences featuring Butch’s detestable partner, a rare case in the film of an unequivocal case – Szarabajka is the moral black to Costner’s grey. Even Philip is shown to be far from white, shoplifting under Costner’s influence and making a climactic decision I’ll leave ambiguous for fear of spoilers, but which he eventually regrets. The film’s conclusion more widely seems to strike an anomalously tragic note given the soul-searching, semi-comedic preceding narrative content. It’s a bold move, but one which feels a tad overplayed, searching for the great tragic demises of cinema (of which Eastwood has played a few) and falling well short. Other than this last overreach, the film is an engaging, character driven drama with believable characters who align with life’s messy, lovable imperfections – a somewhat forgotten film, worth remembering.