A PERFECT WORLD (1993) – The Best Eastwood Picture You Haven’t Seen

Creator: Warner Bros. | Credit: Getty Images | Copyright: 2012 Getty Images

It’s quite fitting that “perfect” found its way into the title of Clint Eastwood’s follow-up to his 1992 magnum opus, Unforgiven. The 1993 film, about an escaped convict, Butch Haynes, (Kevin Costner) and the boy he has kidnapped, Phillip, (T.J. Lowther) and their bond formed while on the run from an aging U.S Marshall, Red Garnett. (Eastwood), A Perfect World is a continuation of perhaps Eastwood’s finest run as an artist. Unforgiven, A Perfect World, and The Bridges of Madison County, all thrive as magical works of cinema thanks to Eastwood’s instinct to upend audience expectations and question his own on-screen ethos. Unforgiven revises the star’s gun-wielding and blunt force heroism as sadistic, and Bridges turns his movie star charm and handsomeness into one struggling to fulfill himself with love. Film critic Sean Burns writes on Letterboxd about A Perfect World, “In a movie about the sins of fathers passed on to their sons, here’s the screen icon considered a dream daddy by at least two generations of moviegoers, admitting that he blew it.” Butch and Phillip are the way that they are because of their lack of proper fatherly love. As Eastwood does time and time again in the past and future (High Plains Drifter and Mystic River), he shows audiences the real cause and effect of violence. Butch uses his pistol, which the photography by Jack Green precisely captures its importance when in his waist pocket, as his weapon for fatherhood for Phillip. He holds the facade of taking Philip trick or treating for the first time a day after Halloween by discreetly aiming the gun at the homeowner. Their first true moment of bonding stems from Butch handing Philip his gun to point at the former’s fellow violent prison escapee. During the film’s pivotal dramatic scene at the local farmer’s house, Philip continues to take comfort in Butch’s state of paternity even after shooting him in the stomach.

While Clint has rightfully received all the praise here, I would like to give a shout out to screenwriter John Lee Hancock. When looking at his directorial filmography, which includes The Blind Side, The Founder, and The Little Things, the apex of pedestrian, I have to think there was a body switch along the way. I’m still not over The Little Things in particular. He made Denzel Washington uninteresting! Despite that, he really killed it with his Perfect World script. It is even more impressive to catch the eye of Eastwood considering he made his supposed swan song and was finally crowned by the Academy Awards in Unforgiven. Though as it turned out, he would still be directing movies, including additional ones that dissect the Eastwood persona, for thirty more years. I think it is worth noting that Clint’s chops purely as a visual storyteller were solidified during his early 90s run. A Perfect World is gorgeous looking without being overly directed. He uses the open fields and roads of Texas like they belong to one of his westerns. Something mesmerizing, but wouldn’t crack the feed of One Perfect Shot is the shot of Butch’s stolen car parked in the middle of a cornfield at night with our two, lonely spirits running away from their respestive imprisonments. I’d be remiss if I forgot to mention the brilliance of Costner’s performance, which is his best ever. I refuse to hear any slack about him solely being a matinee idol who is best suited for swinging a baseball bat.

The idea of escaping from spiritual imprisonment is the greater theme of the film and ultimately why it is my favorite of Eastwood. Butch literally breaking out of prison is a secondary goal compared to his desire to reclaim something spiritually that isn’t entirely articulated, but can be best demonstrated through his relationship with Phillip. The boy, however, is in need of a way to break free more than anyone. Phillip is raised under a mother practicing as a Jehovah’s Witness, and is stuck in a rigid social life, not permitted to interact with other kids. We see in the film’s opening that he is restricted from celebrating Halloween. Phillip getting a hold of a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume is two-pronged. One, he steals it from a shop in a sequence where Butch evades the law, and two, wears it, ocassionally with a mask, for the rest of the film. Again, Butch liberates his temporary surrogate son through means of violence and mayhem. The film’s climax captures the feeling of Phillip as a liberated boy, where the call of his mother to return to her safety cuts a close up shot of him wearing his Casper mask.

I’m trying to keep this on the hush-hush, but you know what sucks and ruins movies especially of the current day? Plot. Somehow, whether it be from a studio adding notes or additional screenwriters, a plot with a macguffin and forced side characters would derail the version of A Perfect World made in 2022. This is definitely true because this would be a Hulu miniseries that’s too long and shot on digital. 1993’s Perfect World is only about the sheer fact that Butch is aimlessly drifting away for something better. Eastwood’s Garnett character even notes that Butch is heading in the wrong direction despite his claims that he’s on his way to Mexico. 

For as much as I’m laying out the beauties of the film and why I have such a sentimental relationship to it, the feelings and ideas are never poured on too thick. That’s not how Eastwood operates. The guy shoots one take for scenes after all. I’m all here for his syrupy sentimentality and wondrous outlook on the universe throughout his filmography, but Steven Spielberg, who expressed interest in directing, could’ve overstayed his welcome. As a quick digress, you see what happens when you complain about Spielberg being too schmaltzy for all these years? We’re stuck with the soulless and insincere MCU. Anyways, A Perfect World worked even better for me on rewatch, as I was able to dig into the makeup and foundation of the themes that pay off in the end, while on first viewing, I was mostly just left with the ground-level emotions it left me with. The film is currently streaming on Showtime, but you could do much worse than coughing up a few bucks to own it for yourself (which I can’t say I’ve done myself. Relying on streaming is going to kill this medium). Anyways, amazing film, Eastwood is a blessing to the art of cinema.

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