A Perfect World (1993)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by John Lee Hancock
Produced by Mark Johnson, David Valdes
Thrown into theaters over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in a bid to exploit the then box office popularity of its star Kevin Costner, A Perfect World wasn’t the movie that families who’d gobbled snowflake mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce were looking to order for dessert; Mrs. Doubtfire satisfied those cravings. A Perfect World began as screenplay Baylor Law School grad turned playwright John Lee Hancock submitted as a writing sample to Clint Eastwood, who not only loved the writing but chose to direct it as his follow-up to Unforgiven. While the action rolls across the picturesque Texas Hill Country and ropes us into believing that this will be a diverting caper, it offers little in the way of instant gratification, being a harsh but resplendent drama about an escaped convict and a boy slowing down the hands of time, both putting off their tenuous future to make something of the present.
Eastwood’s best work as a director uses the finest contemporary actors and technology while striking a contemplative, character driven tempo. These are the best 1960s movies being made today and A Perfect World is a wonderful example of that aesthetic, a cousin to Hud, with a no good bastard at its center, an impressionable boy on the edges and the wide open spaces of Texas as its stage. Costner never possessed the sexual charisma of Paul Newman and what charm he started with in movies like Silverado was beginning to dim here, but A Perfect World isn’t The Kevin Costner Show. T.J. Lowther was well cast and/or directed to a terrific performance for a child, while the lyrical pace permits us to feast on the vintage set design by Henry Bumstead and luscious camerawork Jack N. Green, revealing a time when escaping society and finding yourself seemed possible on the road.
In Austin circa 1963, 9-year-old Phillip Perry (T.J. Cowther) is prohibited from going trick or treating by his single mother, a Jehovah’s Witness. Meanwhile, convicts Butch Haynes (Kevin Costner) and his cellmate Terry Pugh (Keith Szarabajka) escape from prison. Planning to go separate ways once they steal the Ford that Butch covets as a getaway vehicle, Pugh invades Philip’s home. The jailbird draws so much attention accosting his mother that Butch has to take Philip hostage to ensure their escape. The manhunt is led by Texas Rangers Chief Red Garnett (Clint Eastwood), who takes to the roads of the Hill Country in a state of the art Airglide trailer with a Texas Ranger (Leo Burmester), a slick FBI agent (Bradley Whitford) and a criminologist (Laura Dern) from Huntsville sent by the governor to assist.
Uncommonly bright for a ward of the state that grew up in a New Orleans whorehouse, Butch sees something of his own neglected childhood in Phillip and befriends him. When Pugh threatens the boy, Butch cuts his old cellmate loose in a cornfield. Given opportunity to escape, Phillip instead accompanies Butch west. They steal a car, evade an angry farmer and pick up new clothes and a Halloween costume for Phillip in a small town department store, where the duo is almost apprehended by the law. The pair runs across Garnett and company on a back road and in the chase that ensues, the Rangers ends up stranded in a thicket. Butch harbors the fantasy of heading for Alaska, but Phillip begins to miss home. Butch’s capacity for violence and the efforts of Red Garnett ultimately bring their fool’s errand to an end.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 26 users: 85% for A Perfect World
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available
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