Clint Eastwood’s Most Perfect Film As a Director Is Our Underseen Gem

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Missed Connections

‘A Perfect World’ Is Clint Eastwood’s Most Perfect Film As Director

And it’s top-tier Kevin Costner too.

Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions – I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.

This week’s pick kicks off our Texas week with a film that should have been a hit based solely on the track records of the talent involved, but box-office is a fickle thing, and the pairing of Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner for A Perfect World instead resulted in an imperfect five-week run before disappearing from theaters.

Eastwood was coming off two of the biggest hits of his career with In the Line of Fire and the Academy Award-winning Unforgiven, while Costner was riding high on a string of successes including Dances With Wolves, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and The Bodyguard. A collaboration between the two should have been a win at the box-office, but while I was there opening weekend the masses just never showed up. It opened in third place behind Mrs. Doubtfire and Addams Family Values (in its second weekend) and left theaters having grossed barely $30 million. The film was well-received critically and continues to be talked about positively – and it earned an impressive $100 million overseas – but it deserves a wider audience here at home.

Butch (Costner) escapes from prison along with volatile acquaintance named Terry (Keith Szarabajka), and while their plan is to split up as soon soon as possible their fates are destined to intertwine just a little bit longer. A rash act on Terry’s part forces the convicts into taking a young boy hostage, and while it’s a dangerous situation all around little Philip (T.J. Lowther) quickly comes to see it as something more. He comes from a loving, single parent home, but his mother’s strict Jehovah’s Witness morality forbids much of the fun he sees his classmates enjoying. This new experience is an immediate adventure.

The threesome soon becomes a twosome after Terry threatens to cross certain lines leaving Butch and the boy speeding across rural Texas with vague plans for heading north towards Alaska. Various authorities are on their tail, and chief among them is Chief Red Garnett (Eastwood), a Texas Ranger in charge of the manhunt. Along for the ride are Sally Gerber (Laura Dern) as the softer side of the law interested in analysis and parole and a federal sharpshooter named Bobby Lee (Bradley Whitford).

Director Eastwood and writer John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Snow White and the Huntsman) craft an achingly American period film existing in the last moments of perceived possibility – it’s set mere weeks before President John F. Kennedy’s ill-fated visit to Dallas. That impending loss of “innocence” and optimism plays out in reveals about Butch’s youth and the reality of his adulthood, and parallels are drawn to young Philip’s predicament too.

Unrelated but an interesting aside all the same, the Kennedy connection touches both Eastwood and Costner through the films they made prior to this collaboration. Eastwood’s previous film, In the Line of Fire, sees him as a Secret Service agent still feeling the guilt of having failed to protect Kennedy decades earlier, while Costner plays a character fighting for the truth about the assassination in Oliver Stone’s JFK.

Butch poses no threat to the boy aside from placing him the proximity of violence, and the two quickly find something in each other that they themselves have been missing. Butch is the father and freedom the boy’s unfamiliar with, and Philip is the open-ended childhood that was snatched from him through cruelty and circumstance. One’s an adult and the other a child, but the two become honest friends during their brief time together.

“There’s lots of stuff you can do,” Butch tells Philip, “lots and lots of stuff,” and while he’s referring specifically to eating cotton candy and driving a car he’s speaking equally of the opportunities ahead of the boy that he himself never had. He allows the boy entry into the criminal life encouraging him to assist in the theft of a car and failing to chastise him for stealing a Halloween costume, and while his methods are misguided the intention is from the heart. It’s no where more clear than in a scene where he takes the boy trick ‘r treating to a home and flashes a gun to the woman at the door suggesting she fill his bag despite not having any treats. It’s essentially armed robbery, but Philip is unaware and instead ecstatic having taken part in the holiday for the very first time.

Butch sees the fatherless boy as in his own likeness – and it’s his urge to help a fellow “victim” find justice that sees him keep custody of the boy past the point of necessity – but Philip is quick to point out that his mother loves him and cares for him despite the peculiarities of their religion. Butch’s impulse towards protecting others, the same impulse that led to the only two times he’s killed, is instead channeled elsewhere as the pair take refuge in the kindness of strangers. While the ultimate outcome feels like a known quantity early on, the time spent in the company of a farm family becomes the film’s most suspenseful and unsettling sequence as Butch is triggered to defend and possibly avenge another wronged child. It’s heartbreaking in both its presentation and implication.

Eastwood’s onscreen work here is fine as he turns in his typical grimace and grunt-filled performance, and he balances out Dern’s spunky woman treading fiercely into what was a man’s world. The two spar well, but acting-wise the film belongs to Costner and young Lowther. Instead, Eastwood’s strength is flexed best as director. He captures the world and characters with a relaxed grace that only finds urgency where it naturally builds as opposed to artificial set-pieces or constructs. The sleepy and calm Texas landscape offers a beautiful backdrop for the film’s collisions between characters, and even at over two hours we’re never left feeling a drag or checking the clock. There’s a clear plot and narrative here, but the film’s characters, themes, and atmosphere are allowed to take priority.

A Perfect World is quite possibly Eastwood’s best directorial effort and features Costner’s most affecting performance. Give it a shot if you haven’t yet, and you can even make it a double feature with Tin Cup as both films feature Costner, Texas, and Linda Hart as a possible love interest!

Read more entries in last year’s The Essentials, and follow along every Monday with Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience for one reason or another.

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