The trajectory and scope of A Perfect World, Clint Eastwood’s superb follow-up to Unforgiven, is that of a thick slab of sprawling Americana, so much so that one might initially think it was adapted from some largely unknown tome by Larry McMurtry or Elmore Leonard. Rather, John Lee Hancock’s ambitious script mimics a crime story that one might have seen on the backend of a double feature, while imbuing the story with prickly details and somber realities concerning violence, family, crime, and masculinity. Thus, Hancock, who’s also responsible for the execrable The Blind Side, lays the groundwork for Eastwood to transform what might have been an admirable, tightly told entertainment into something far more emotionally resonant, slyly self-aware, and rich in subtext.
Set in 1963, the plot is, on the surface, an on-the-lam story: Young Phillip (T.J. Lowther) is taken hostage early one morning by two escaped convicts in a small Texas suburb. The quieter and more collected criminal is Butch (Kevin Costner), who shoots his vile escape partner, Terry (Keith Szarabajka), when he threatens to kill Phillip at a filling station. Immediately, Eastwood and Hancock set up two oppositional visions of the American outlaw and, after dispatching the more simple and depraved of the two, Butch becomes a figure of deconstructed mythos for the director. But for Phillip, he’s at once the father he never met, the hero he worships and aspires toward, and the deeply scarred man he might become.
For Butch, Phillip is, like most children, an innocent in need of protection and some off-kilter guidance, a fine companion to accompany him on his run to Alaska. On his tail is Red, an aging lawman played by Eastwood, who commandeers a new-fangled mobile command center (a small trailer attached to a pick-up truck) for the manhunt and is flanked by Sally (Laura Dern), a forensic psychologist, and a cold, egotistical F.B.I. sharpshooter, Bobby Lee (Bradley Whitford). Both Whitford and Dern essentially serve similar roles to Eastwood’s character: two well-rendered variations on the lawman, Bobby Lee being the atypical, quasi-sadistic government spook, and Sally being the hyper-informed, science-minded crime solver of the future.
Like Eastwood’s best work, A Perfect World is a film deeply concerned with the complexities and turmoil of change in America, the crimes of the past, and how the effects of violence and corruption routinely return over time. It is, for instance, certainly no coincidence that the film is set on the eve of the Kennedy assassination, and the harrowing final sequence is a vague yet eerie echo of that event with the very public and prolonged death of the film’s chief antihero, not unlike the slow death of the cowboy in the middle of Unforgiven. The events depicted in A Perfect World exist on the lip of humongous social change, seen in Phillip’s single-mother household, Red’s thawing sense of personal justice, and Sally, representing both the heightened role of women and psychology in the routines and direction of social justice.
And seeing as Eastwood’s early, initially right-wing persona came out of the 1960s, the director marks the influence of turbulent social change on film as well. Butch is a slightly aged James Dean, a Clyde Barrow without the fine duds, but instead of cool misanthropy or, er, performance issues, he has problems with (parental) authority and reacts with deadly force to adults who abuse children, as seen in a ferocious and chilling sequence at the home of a poor farmer. Eastwood brings his own ingrained, steely cinematic presence as well, but Phillip’s final calls of “Butch!” (a clear reference to the end of Shane) signal Eastwood’s tough and singular cinema of an unbiased moral responsibility. Despite its rich tapestry of characters, the film is ultimately about Red and Butch, whose unseen, defining moment of conflict in Butch’s youth is not unlike the inciting incident at the beginning of Gun Crazy.
To Eastwood, Butch isn’t a bad person, though capable of dark and violent acts; he’s the product of Red’s morally dubious dealings in the legal system and a seductive criminal father who teased him with reconciliation. Not unlike Sean Penn’s Jimmy in Mystic River, Red faces the crimes of his past, brought to vibrant visual life by Eastwood, and though he ultimately fails at redeeming his mistakes, the stark realization of the effects of his bias and corrupted power rings true with a devastating toll.
Before Clint Eastwood started his relationship with the great cinematographer Tom Stern, he worked primarily with Jack N. Green, who also shot Unforgiven and White Hunter Black Heart. Warner's 1080p transfer of A Perfect World captures the lush, vivid look that Green beautifully brings to the film. Rural Texas, with its bucolic sprawl of tall grass and endless cornfields, has rarely been depicted with such vivacity on screen, and the texture, in the clothing especially, is crystal clear. The crisp clarity of the transfer also brings out the film's fine detail, especially in the farmer's home and in the department store Butch and Phillip stop at. Black levels are also perfectly inky. The audio isn't brought out as perfectly, but the DTS Master Audio does justice to Eastwood's sonic landscape. Dialogue is most important and sounds great and out front, with Lennie Niehaus's excellent score and atmospheric sound effects rounding out the back end wonderfully. A highly respectable transfer, overall.
Clint Eastwood's tenacious, boldly self-effacing outlaw ride through Texas receives a lovely audio/visual transfer from Warner Home Video, but nothing in the way of extras to lend this overlooked masterpiece context or backstory.