Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Perfect World (Clint Eastwood, 1993)

A Perfect World takes plays in the days before John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas as a prison breakout in Huntsville leads to the taking of a hostage and a manhunt across Texas to bring the escaped to justice. This setting is no accident: with the shadow of Kennedy's literal and symbolic demise hanging over the film, Clint Eastwood's portrait of stunted, doomed innocence is all the more poignant, and it's no wonder this simple but powerful psychological study emerges as one of the director's finest works.

After a tranquil but confusing shot of a man lying in a field next to a Casper mask and some fluttering cash in the wind, Eastwood moves back in time to show a strict Jehovah's Witness keeping her children inside on Halloween and refusing candy to any kids who wander onto her doorstep. Eastwood breaks up these scenes with shots of the prison breakout, as Robert "Butch" Haynes (Kevin Costner) and Terry Pugh (Keith Szarabajka) crawl out through the ventilation system and hold up a prison official to make him drive them off the grounds. The connection is clear: for the young, repressed son, Phillip (T.J. Lowther), his home is as much a prison as the literal institution, though he's done nothing to deserve his incarceration. When the two cons break into the house and take him hostage, they ironically facilitate his own freedom despite using him as leverage. Along the way, he and Butch affect each other in profound ways, mainly because Eastwood, a director I've often found overly insistent, never forces the point.

Being on the road unleashes the ids of not only the pent-up convicts but Phillip. Pugh, an uncontrollable fiend, is only made more wild: he fires a pistol at water towers, even into the roof of the getaway car. One suspects that Butch takes the boy hostage instead of the mother or the daughters as much to ward off any sexual shenanigans on Terry's part. When that proves to be insufficient, the trio is quickly reduced to two, and the protective bond between Butch and Phillip is sealed. Phillip's freedom is far more joyous: Lowther's look of longing and sadness as he watched neighborhood kids vindictively egg his house for receiving no candy laid the groundwork for his desire for rebellion, and he experiences the first real happiness of his life riding with Butch. Junk food, riding on top of a car, going on trick-or-treating (amusingly facilitated by Butch threatening confused adults), Phillip finally gets to experience a bit of life.

On paper, this film sounds like the worst kind of pop psychology, the notion of a criminal becoming the father he never had for a boy who also lacks a true father figure opening up the possibility for sub-Spielbergian schmaltz. But Eastwood's workmanlike elegance has rarely, if ever, served him better. The scenes between Costner and Lowther are natural and in the moment. Costner's own limited range actually serves the film well in this respect; a more confident and versatile actor might have tried to show off, to make sure we saw the symbolic importance of the warming relationship between criminal and hostage, boy and man. Instead, he simply reacts off Lowther, bringing out Butch's own hangups in natural, contextual ways instead of telegraphing them at every step. His parental issues manifest in the form of sharp but brief glances at yelling mothers or abusive fathers, while Lowther also proves to be an understated performer. The boy actually progresses in his affection for the man who holds him hostage rather than resist until some vague shift that turns him into a devoted companion.
I've never been the biggest booster of Eastwood, but even in his weakest moments, he has a command of the camera that finds an unlikely balance of simple construction and grace. In the film's early moments, he connects the prison, Phillip's home and, shortly thereafter, the Texas Rangers who take on the case to track the escapees; disparate locations all, but the director always finds some way of smoothly linking them. The aforementioned metaphorical significance links the prison with the house, and Eastwood transitions between wholly non-matching shots of the suburbs to the office in Dallas by maintaining the same elegant track-forward, cutting from the camera moving toward the devastated mother to moving with a Ranger walking toward the office of Red Garnett (Eastwood), the Ranger in charge of the case. This steady progression makes sense of the spatial leaps, and this almost unnoticeable display of professionalism sets the bedrock for the film's human complexity.

He also knows how to set up a layered joke, and A Perfect World does much of its character building through moments of human comedy. Butch flashing his gun to get a housewife to play along with Phillip's belated trick-or-treating, or his subsequent stick-up of a family riding in their brand-new car, are funny, but these moments deepen the characters. In the case of the latter, Phillip himself cannot help but laugh at the sight of the family gaping dumbly after the stolen car, but Butch admonishes him, nothing that the father did the right thing by surrendering a material good rather than starting an altercation that might have led to Butch shooting the man or even the whole family. The scene where Butch has to explain sex to the boy after the kid witnesses him making out with a waitress is predictable, but Eastwood trusts the actors to make something amusing and fresh out of the situation, and to see the escaped convict suddenly blanch is indeed funny.

Likewise, Eastwood builds the relationship between Red and Sally (Laura Dern), a criminologist assigned to his search party to his annoyance, through comic tension. Eastwood has never had that strong a grasp on progressive women, and Sally could have been an absolutely horrid stereotype of a career-driven woman trying to prove herself. Instead, Dern plays her as someone so confident in her abilities that she does not remotely care what Red or the other men think. Her indifference only makes them look more foolish, such as the scene where Red has the driver of their mobile command center keep inching forward as she tries to get in. And because she simply does her job, Red comes to respect her much faster and to see her as more than just a bureaucrat weighing down the investigation*.

At his best, Eastwood's camera not only pulls back to let the actors do their thing but actually works in harmony with the performances. While riding in the trailer with the other lawmen, Sally abruptly starts playacting as Butch, relating facts from the man's past. The cuts in this scene only move away to catch the reactions of the confused men, who start to address her as Butch the way baffled audience members will often speak to a puppet rather than the puppeteer. Dern never oversteps her boundaries, never goes for OTT histrionics or analysis of Butch's life. She just relates the facts to gently guide the men to interpretative conclusions, and without Eastwood's simple but effecting cutting scheme, it would have been too suggestive and obvious. Elsewhere, Eastwood places a lot of faith in Costner to sell the suspenseful scenes, the judicious editing working with Costner's small but unmistakble gestures of worry and menace rather than around them. His camera subtly positions itself as a series of shifting perspective shots of nervous bystanders catching sight of his gun or a threatening gesture and Costner keying in on a radio newscast that will alert someone to their real identity or of a hand reaching for a telephone.

The film's climax is perhaps the most bravura moment in Eastwood's filmography, an extended hideaway at a farmhand's home that begins innocently and escalates so smoothly that the sudden snap somehow seems inevitable in retrospect. Costner has never been finer, the slow burning of long-repressed feelings finally exploding on this poor family as Phillip suddenly has to come to terms with the sort of man Butch can really be. The wife pleads with the criminal, saying she knows he's a good man, and the matter-of-fact coolness with which Costner replies "No, I ain't a good man.  I ain't the worst neither.  Just a breed apart" is horrifically troubling. The sequence appears to end several times before it does, finally culminating in a payoff that is both dynamic yet oddly anticlimactic.

As much as I've criticized Eastwood's works, that sensitivity to his weaknesses is offset by my total inability to pin down just how he pulls off his best stuff, which is typically better than anything any other director, at least in this country, can do. Eastwood essentially devotes the last half hour to the extended climax, which moves through multiple moods and payoffs between Butch/Phillip and the poor black family whose own behavior is not so clear-cut as we are first led to believe by the patriarch's kindness to strangers. And then Eastwood can maintain that climax into the confrontation with the law, which itself subverts expectations despite the expected outcome, and outcome that also contextualized the bizarre opening shot and replacing the strange beauty with intense tragedy. When at last we learn of the true reason for Butch's intended destination, this haunting frame recalls another great auteurist statement from 1993, Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way. Both films depict men chasing impossible dreams, perfect worlds away from their constricting, fatal lifestyles. But like Sally earlier told a condescending lawman, "In a perfect world this wouldn't have happened in the first place." Just as Carlito Brigante's fantasy of the perfect, tranquil retirement is borne of the imperfection of his occupation, so too is Butch's dream the result of unhealed psychological wounds, wounds that only began to be treated by the boy who ultimately symbolizes a dream no less intangible for him.

*Eastwood's disregard for bureaucratic justice might seem like a conservative hatred of desk jockeys: when the team discovers the prison official forced to help the men escape murdered in his trunk, Red casually says, "Well, there's our bureaucrat." But it is worth noting that his depiction of a flawed system does not stem from a belief that paper-pushers and regulations hold back the sweet revenge of rough justice but that broadly applied laws allow for no leeway in extenuating circumstances and emotionally and psychologically varied scenarios. Ergo, the problem is not, unlike in Michael Bay films, that ball-busting bureaucrats take all the fun out of executing someone, it's that they expedite disproportionate responses and then bury the outrage in paperwork.


  1. Costner's star power has certainly waned over the years, but when he's on his A-game as I feel he is here, you're in for a treat. Certainly not one of Clint's best, but an interesting little gem for sure.

  2. I rewatched this about a year ago. I was stunned by how truly superb all the scenes with Costner and the kid are and how absolutely lousy the scenes with Dern and Eastwood are. And then the movie throws them together for one of the most drawn out conclusions I've ever seen. (Punctuated with a ridiculous knee to the nuts.) Eastwood's weakness, I think, is his willingness to settle -- that 'why do two takes if the first one is OK?' spirit that critics love to romanticize as unpretentious. I guess I prefer directors who aren't so willing to say "good enough."