Following on the heels of his unprecedented success with the previous year’s Unforgiven was never to be an easy task for Eastwood. With A Perfect World, he leaned more toward the behind-camera side of filmmaking — a choice validated mid-production by his being awarded a pair of Oscars for direction and production — only taking a supporting role at the express behest of star Kevin Costner.
On the run having escaped prison, career criminals Butch Haynes and Terry Pugh are forced to take the young Phillip hostage in the midst of an attempt to steal a car. Disposing of the more overtly psychopathic Pugh along the way, Butch and Phillip begin to bond as they flee the police manhunt led by Texas Ranger Red Garnett.
Of Unforgiven, Eastwood commented that it “summarizes everything I feel about the western”, positioning it as his final entry in the genre and a definitive bookend to a huge part of his career. A Perfect World effectively continues this new direction, taking a fresh perspective to concepts previously explored in the Eastwood canon. Its obvious predecessor is Honkytonk Man, which similarly explored the relationship between an impressionable young boy and a conflicted role model. At its heart, the film is about men; perhaps more accurately, it is about masculinity. A subtly underplayed plot point, but a pivotal one, is Phillip’s insecurity brought on by Pugh’s reference to a certain bodily appendage as “puny”. This physical externalization of Phillip’s interior fears and doubts regarding his lack of a male role model introduces the centrepiece of the film’s comment upon what it is to be a man. That the entirety of this thematic exploration is contained within a traditional manhunt narrative that, in its own right, could make for an entertaining movie is to be commended, Eastwood’s masterful balancing of an entertaining chase and a heartfelt look at an unlikely friendship rendered with impressive delicacy. The body of the action may be in Red’s hunt for Butch, but the real engaging drama is found within the confines of a single car: the charming, witty, and touchingly deep conversations between Phillip and Butch. From the latter, the former learns how to be a real man, but also the point at which exerting one’s masculinity can go too far.
The film’s secondary relationship, that of the hunter and the hunted, is also a point of much interest. Together, in a manner deeply similar to Munny and Daggett in Unforgiven, Red and Butch blur the line between the traditional concepts of good and evil served to us in films of this type. The narrative is nothing ground-breaking, certainly, but nor does it wholly conform to what we expect from a story of this sort. Red is no righteous arm of the law, valiantly pursuing the unjust criminal; Butch is a character beyond monochrome villainy. As Butch seeks to “save” Phillip from the decimated childhood his mother’s restrictions have forced upon him, so too does Red desire to save Butch, recognizing that he too has been deprived of a real childhood. It is of vital significance that Red spends the film attempting to rescue not Phillip, but Butch, the society-created criminal. The film’s ending should, theoretically, be a happy one, but instead it is bittersweet; tinged with rueful rhetoric. Red’s final lines are also those of the film itself: “I don’t know nothin’. Not one damn thing.”
Having stuck disappointingly close to the formulas of several genre pieces throughout the 80s into the very beginning of the 90s (Firefox; Sudden Impact; Heartbreak Ridge; The Rookie), with A Perfect World Eastwood takes what might have otherwise been a standard hostage scenario drama and gives it a wonderful tenderness, treating his tough themes with a soft yet penetrating affection. Again exploring the idea of masculinity and toying with it as he does best, he crafts a bitterly tragic fable of lost innocence.
[notification type=”star”]77/100 – With A Perfect World Eastwood takes what might have otherwise been a standard hostage scenario drama and gives it a wonderful tenderness, treating his tough themes with a soft yet penetrating affection.[/notification]