Friday, February 24, 2017

A Perfect World (Malpaso Productions/Warner Bros., 1993)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was the oddly titled A Perfect World, a 1993 genre-bender combining thriller, comedy and soap opera, directed by Clint Eastwood from a script by John Lee Hancock (who’s since become a prestigious writer-director of such films as The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks and the Ray Kroc biopic The Founder) and co-starring Kevin Costner and Eastwood himself. Set in Texas in the early 1960’s, A Perfect World starts with an escape from the prison at Huntsville, Texas, in which Robert “Butch” Haynes (Kevin Costner) and Terry Pugh (Keith Szarabajka) manage to burrow their way through the walls of their cell into an air vent, which leads to a fan which they stuff up with a folded-up sheet so they can stop it from rotating. Then they remove it and make their getaway by hijacking a 1960 Chevrolet (the car’s famous curved back fins that came to a point in the middle of the trunk lid in back are readily recognizable to me, who saw plenty of cars like that when I was a kid) and holding its owner hostage. The two escaped cons don’t really like each other and keep arguing as they look for a better car they can steal — Butch holds out for a Ford because he says his father always drove Fords — and the main intrigue begins when they crash into a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses and take an eight-year-old boy, Phillip “Buzz” Perry (T. J. Lowther, who had a brief adult career later though doesn’t list any credits for him since a Grey’s Anatomy TV episode in 2009), as hostage.

From then on the movie — Costner’s part of it, anyway — turns into a weird modern (well, early-1960’s “modern,” anyway) update of Treasure Island; like Jim Hawkins with Long John Silver, Phillip starts out as a hostage but soon starts to bond with his captor, especially when the guy starts exposing him to trick-or-treating (the movie starts on Hallowe’en and takes place over the next day or two afterwards), roller-coaster rides (which he simulates by strapping the kid to the roof of a stolen station wagon the two pick up along the way) and carnivals. Indeed, the boy is so taken with the new father figure in his life that he stays with Butch even when he has a few chances to escape —including one in which they stop at a store called “Friendly’s” to buy clothes for the boy (he was taken in his underwear and Butch wants to get him a pair of pants, though Phillip shoplifts a Casper the Friendly Ghost Hallowe’en costume that’s been remaindered and wears that for most of the rest of the movie) and at which they’re treated well until the proprietor hears a radio report on the escaped con and realizes who Butch is, whereupon the owner calls the police and as Butch leaves he says, “Not too friendly after all.” Earlier Butch had stopped at a small grocery (this is the middle of nowhere in the Texas Panhandle and all the businesses are small, and as Eastwood’s character — the Texas Ranger who’s coordinating the manhunt for Butch and Terry — laconically says, that part of the state has “more roads than people”) to buy food and also bullets for his gun, which has run out of them — and he uses the newly reloaded gun to shoot Terry after a quirky scene in which Phillip tries to flee through some fields and Terry chases him and looks like he’s going to rape the boy if he catches him.

Clint Eastwood — who originally planned only to direct this film but ended up in it largely at Costner’s insistence, since Costner didn’t want to make a film with Eastwood unless Eastwood was actually in it, though the two don’t appear in the same scene until the climax — is inhabiting a virtually different movie, a sort of Dirty Harry Lite in which he makes clear his impatience with the Texas governor (who’s supposed to be John Connally) and the bureaucracy he has to deal with, particularly the bizarre trailer from which he is supposed to coordinate the manhunt and the assistant he’s given to coordinate it with, Sally Gerber (an effective Laura Dern), who annoys him by referring to the escape as a “penal escape situation” but whom he later protects from an unwanted sexual advance by the FBI agent who’s also part of the law enforcement crew. (So both Eastwood’s and Costner’s characters protect someone in their entourage from being raped.) A Perfect World isn’t a great film but it’s a quite good one — better than the more successful vehicles both Eastwood and Costner also made in 1993 (Eastwood’s In the Line of Fire and Costner’s awful The Bodyguard) — mainly because of the moral ambiguity of the characters: Butch is presented as a basically decent person who slipped into a life of crime, and he’s killed two people but clearly for sympathetic reasons (he shot his father because his dad was about to beat up his mom — or at least so he tells us — and we’ve seen him shoot Terry when Terry was about to sexually assault Phillip). What’s more, though through most of the movie we’re not aware of any previous history between Butch and “Red” Garnett (Eastwood’s lawman character), about two-thirds of the way through we find out there was one; one of the people in the law-enforcement crew asks why Butch got a four-year prison sentence for so relatively minor a crime as joy-riding, and Garnett in Eastwood’s most authoritative tones said that he bribed the judge with a T-bone steak to give him such a stiff sentence because Butch’s father was “a career criminal” and Garnett feared Butch would follow in his old man’s footsteps if the law didn’t come down hard on him.

The film alternates between comedy, sentiment and thrills, sometimes awkwardly but mostly effectively (as a director, Eastwood knows what he’s doing, and A Perfect World is refreshingly free of the advocacy of vigilante justice from some of Eastwood’s other modern-dress crime films, notably Mystic River) — the attempts of the local cops to ambush Butch after he’s recognized at Friendly’s are straight out of the Keystone Kops (and Butch and Phillip escape them easily), while the climax is deadly serious: Butch and Phillip are spotted in a field sharecropped by a Black family: Mac (Wayne Dehart), his wife Lottie (Mary Alice) and their grandson Cleveland — “Cleve” for short (Kevin Jamal Woods). Butch finds an old 78 rpm phonograph and recognizes one of the records — actually a weird instrumental for violin and bagpipes called “Big Fran’s Baby” that’s supposed to represent Cajun folk music but was actually written by Eastwood and his usual musical director, Lennie Niehaus — and makes Lottie dance with him to it. Later their relationship turns and Butch nearly strangles Mack, eventually tying up the three with rope and duct tape, and just then the law enforcement officials finally zero in on Butch’s whereabouts. Butch isn’t going anywhere because Phillip shot him in the stomach when he was about to kill Mack — it hasn’t killed Butch but it has incapacitated him and made it virtually impossible to escape — and in the final confrontation, though Butch tries to tell them he isn’t armed, the FBI guy who earlier tried to rape Sally Gerber unpacks a sniper rifle, ready to pick off Butch as soon as he releases Phillip. A police helicopter flies in Phillip’s mom and Butch makes her promise to drop all the Jehovah’s Witness objections to holidays and fun and let her boy have a normal childhood as a condition for releasing him — only the kid turns back to Butch about halfway across the field, obviously concerned enough about Butch that at the very least he wants the cops to take him alive instead of shooting him down. So does Garnett — speaking through pursed lips from the characteristic Eastwood scowl, he gives the FBI sniper the order not to shoot unless Garnett specifically orders him to — but the FBI guy ignores the instruction and plugs Butch in the heart, finishing him off.

A Perfect World is a peculiarly haunting film, one which would have played quite differently if Eastwood had gone with his original idea of casting Denzel Washington as Butch — obviously if the crook had been Black there would have been utterly no suspense as to whether the cops were going to take him alive or dead (Black lives mattered to white law enforcers even less in 1963 than they do now) — and one wonders who Eastwood would have got to play Garnett with Denzel Washington as Butch. (I garbled this one to Charles and thought Eastwood would have had Washington play the law-enforcement leader, which as Charles pointed out would have been utterly inconceivable: a Black official would never have had supervisory authority over whites in 1963 Texas.) John Lee Hancock, a Texas native, went on to write another movie Eastwood directed, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, before moving on to the prestige projects he’s done since (mostly for Disney), and Eastwood wisely shot all of A Perfect World on location in Texas so the landscape actually becomes a character in the story. The oddly tacky country music Butch and Phillip listen to on the radios of the various cars Butch has stolen (some of it quite good songs by people like Bob Wills, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, some of it pretty much the clichéd country of the time) also helps create the mood (though Cash’s “Guess Things Happen That Way,” one of his Sun recordings, is oddly credited to Columbia on the closing credits). According to, A Perfect World was a box-office disappointment in the U.S. but did better overseas — it deserved a better fate when it was new and has been largely and unjustly forgotten since!