Movie of the Week: A Perfect World (1993)
Clint Eastwood directs Kevin Costner, himself and Laura Dern in this 60s set road drama about a fugitive who kidnaps a young Jehovah’s Witness, and treats the boy to some of the freedom and fathering he feels they have both missed out on.
I must have watched A Perfect World over a dozen times as a teenager. I owned it on VHS. And then when my video collection gave way to moving out of my family home and the ascension of DVD, it just got lost in the shuffle. It went from being a cherished regular in my viewing habits one decade, to being nothing but a fond memory for the last two. You always worry such a film won’t live up to immature nostalgia… might prove to be a rose tinted dud. No such problem here.
This is a film as macho and as sensitive, as richly composed and gently entertaining as Clint’s Unforgiven or Mystic River. He’s a deceptively unfussy director, at home with a simple joke as he is with allowing his actors to inhabit parts without monologues or grand standing. The great thing about a Clint directed movie is, no matter how dark the subject matter or important the themes, he shoots it like a western or cop drama, populates it with solid talent. You could show one of his better slow, thoughtful dramas to your Dirty Harry loving grandpops and he could access the old school pleasures therein. You could let your most pretentious arthouse loving friend in on a viewing, and they’d struggle not to see the same morally ambiguous exploration of humanity and society as a Bergman or a Tarkovsky would lend their drier, more high faultin’ fare.
Costner, here, benefits the most. The star at his career peak delivers a layered performance as a bad man with good in him, even if his severe judgment of others is often intimidatingly off. You never fear or doubt his protection of the child caught up in his escape, yet you can’t help but think his kindness to him either betrays a suppressed infantilism in the brutal man or a desire to gift the child with the fathering he craved before he went off the rails. What makes good fathering is the thesis of the film. Costner’s Butch’s Dad was a ne’er do well. Clint’s authorarian Ranger Red thought the state farm would straighten the young Butch out and get him away from his father’s bad habits. Young Philip’s father is long gone and his life is dictated by his mother’s strict beliefs. A grandfather who takes the runaways in for a night is callously violent to his grandson who he looks after… Costner responds with murderous threat in the film’s most nail bitingly intense sequence. America is about to lose its innocence as their current paternal figure, President John F Kennedy, is fated to be shot and killed in the very state and very month our tale is set in.
Clint doesn’t offer easy answers… by his measure no alternative to a good, loving father is offered. Much affection and respect passes between Philip and Butch, and as much as we enjoy seeing their mismatched relationship flourish, you can always see the bad example our protagonist sets our cloistered boy. Clint presents a view on parenting that is down on interference, down on corporal punishment and down on religious prescribed morality. Kids need love and space to work on who they are. A very libertarian attitude.
The only flaw that holds A Perfect World back from a perfect score is the final stand-off. Though gripping and in keeping with the pace of the whole relaxed road movie project… it just outstays its welcome. Even if it drags a fair bit, the slow drip rhythm at the very least matches our investment not to see the conclusion suddenly rushed or stunted.
My Top 10 Kevin Costner Movies
1.Dances With Wolves (1990)
2. Field Of Dreams (1989)
3. The Untouchables (1987)
4. JFK (1991)
5. Open Range (2003)
6. A Perfect World (1993)
7. Bull Durham (1988)
8. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
9. 13 Days (2000)
10. Hatfields & McCoys (2012)