I started 2013 with a review of the broad but likable baseball movie TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE, where I wrote, “I don’t know if this is true but I heard it’s good luck for movie critics to start a year with a Clint Eastwood review.” I made the whole thing up, and the results were inconclusive anyway. I wouldn’t say last year was exactly a day at the races for me, but at least I wasn’t one of the horses. There were a few scares but they coulda been worse. I’m still going.
It doesn’t really matter if the superstition holds water, though, ’cause a Clint movie is a good way to start a year anyway. I might make it a tradition. I decided to go with A PERFECT WORLD this time because I’d been meaning to see it for a long time and I was reminded of that recently when the screenwriter, John Lee Hancock, directed SAVING MR. BANKS. Between that and THE BLIND SIDE (and maybe THE ROOKIE, I haven’t seen that one) Hancock’s John Hancock has become sort of better-than-expected middlebrow feel good type movies. In comparison his script for A PERFECT WORLD, directed by Clint and starring Kevin Costner, is pretty bleak. I mean it’s about a sweet relationship between a fugitive and a little boy. And it means it. But it doesn’t try to make you forget that this is a murderer taking a little boy hostage, putting him in danger and exposing him to terrible, traumatic events, even making him point a gun at people. He tries to be nice to the kid and encourages him to do harmless fun things his mom doesn’t let him do, but that doesn’t make him Mary Poppins or Sandra Bullock. More like a deadbeat uncle who tries to be your bro.
Costner plays Butch Haynes, the more honorable of two jailbreakers. Their escape is still young when the other guy Terry (Keith Szarabajka) becomes that one crook that’s in every movie that fucks everything up by turning rapey with an innocent woman so that his partner has to turn on him. Next thing you know gotta flee from amateur gunfire using the lady’s kid as a tiny human shield. And the boy was just woken out of bed so he’s in his underwear. This just doesn’t look good.
The story takes place in the early ’60s, and I think there’s kind of an underlying idea that the pre-Vietnam War days weren’t all strawberries and cream like some (white) people like to remember them. The title makes reference to the phrase for hypothetical scenarios, as in “in a perfect world this kid would’ve had pants on when they kidnapped him”, but as criminologist Sally Gerber (Laura Dern) points out, this is never a perfect world. People are fucked up and they don’t always know the best thing to do, or want to do the best thing. At the same time it’s obviously a movie that has sympathy for most of its characters, especially this anti-hero fuckup Butch.
Clint plays Red Garnett, veteran Texas Ranger in charge of the manhunt. He gets to use the governor’s new trailer as a roving headquarters. For a second I was convinced that a pre-directing-THE-USUAL-SUSPECTS Bryan Singer had somehow gotten a part as the government employee who has to go along to keep an eye on the trailer:
but I guess that’s an actor named Paul Hewitt. There’s some talk about how their high tech trailer is supposed to be used for dignitaries in an upcoming parade in Dallas that John F. Kennedy is gonna be at. Of course Costner had just starred in JFK two years earlier, but I worried this was also supposed to be some kinda implication that if Red hadn’t taken the trailer it might’ve saved JFK. Like instead of being wide open in a convertible he woulda been safely tucked inside with Clint’s IN THE LINE OF FIRE Secret Service character Frank Horrigan running along next to it. Not only would it have saved our nation a great tragedy, but Horrigan wouldn’t’ve had all that guilt all those years before he stopped John Malkovich’s plastic gun plot.
Anyway, never fear, this IMDb trivia entry explains why it had to be a different non-fatal JFK visit to Dallas. The trailer wouldn’t have made a difference. They shoulda dumped it off a cliff.
This is one of those roles that makes you forget all the baggage Costner had after becoming a superstar and forcing the audience to turn on him. He’s really good here, even if he’s playing him as kind of a doofus when we’ve been told by Gerber that he’s highly intelligent. He’s got alot of layers to him, kind of a grown up little boy that can accidentally crack and unleash the psychopath beneath. He also struts and poses and smokes like a young Clint. He’s pretty cool, though he obviously can’t hold a candle to old Clint.
Red is a classic Clint character, a stoic, stubborn old cowboy (hat and all) who resists modern ideas (like a young woman coming along and using this newfangled psychological profiling fad to help with the chase) but proves to be more sensitive and wise than he lets on. We find out he even has a personal connection to Haynes, a past incident where he seemingly threw the book at him but in fact was sincerely trying to do what he thought would help him out. He seems like a hardass but he’s honestly trying to end this thing peacefully, unlike the hotshot FBI sniper along for the ride (I almost didn’t recognize him as Bradley Whitford, who showed up again in SAVING MR. BANKS.) So just like with Tyne Daley in THE ENFORCER he at first clashes with Gerber and then ends up bonding with her. They’re both trying to get inside this criminal’s head, but in different ways.
Also there’s a part where Red steals a bunch of steaks from the governor’s mini-fridge and cooks them over a campfire. It’s important to have moments like that.
Red is a strong enough character to be the protagonist, but he’s not. He’s Tommy Lee Jones in THE FUGITIVE. He’s on screen for less than a third of the movie, but he makes an impression. I was able to identify with our anti-hero Butch and then, every time it switched back to Red, root for him too, somehow.
Why did Clint take the backseat to Costner? Apparently to make time to do the awards campaign for UNFORGIVEN. He had Hancock’s script and thought it would be a good one to do without having to act in it. But Costner convinced him to take the supporting role. Thanks Costner.
There’s a theme throughout of Philip being deprived of fun by his mother (Jennifer Griffin)’s Jehovah’s Witness beliefs. We first meet him on Halloween night being sad that he can’t go trick-or-treating, and embarrassed when kids he knows from school are refused candy at his house. Butch seems to be profoundly bummed out by the idea of this kid having somewhat more opportunity than he did as a boy, and yet less. In (SPOILER) a standoff he doesn’t demand a helicopter or anything, he just tries to negotiate for the kid to get some candy and a ride on a rollercoaster.
But luckily the mother is not treated as a bad guy. She’s just doing what she thinks is right. I like how the dad of the trick-or-treaters at the beginning handles it. At first he’s befuddled by the denial of candy, then he turns respectful and says “Sorry for the bother.” He seems like a nice guy.
This kid Philip, I think he says he’s 9 years old, but the actor, T.J. Lowther, was about 7 at the time according to my math. He has the occasional stiff line reading like the kids in GRAN TORINO, but mostly he has a sort of tired-eyed defeat and distracted lack of eye contact that seems very naturalistic and anti-child-star. He’s confused and unpredictable. He seems sad and he’s gotta be scared but through some prodding from Butch he starts taking on a when-in-Rome type of approach to the situation. He shoplifts a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume and, despite some fear and hesitation, does a one-day-late trick-or-treating. (He doesn’t realize that Butch turns it into an armed robbery.)
Butch doesn’t really need him as a hostage anymore and he gives him a choice to stay behind at one point, but you know how it is, the boy is confused. Despite the wrongness of these two even knowing each other, there’s something kinda sweet about the killer on the lam caring about the kid and trying in his dumb way to make him happy. It turns funny and ANY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE-esque at times, playing some mayhem and close scrapes more for laughs than for tension. On the other hand, alot of the happy fun scenes have any underlying sense of danger. The big question this one brings up is how the fuck did they do that part where the kid is riding on top of the car!?
Are my eyes fooling me or did they really have a little boy strapped to a car, with Kevin Costner really driving it, and at a decent speed? I’m surprised that’s legal. Maybe they shot it in Thailand.
The music (by Lenny Niehaus of course) tells us that part’s supposed to be fun, so I’m not sure we’re supposed to be worried about Philip falling off. Therefore a better example of the thing I’m talking about is in a scene where they stay with a family and Butch gets to playing records and prodding the wife Lottie (Mary Alice, Oracle 2.0 from the MATRIX sequels) and grandson Cleve (Kevin Jamal Woods, THE LITTLE RASCALS) to dance around and laugh. They’re all having fun and it feels like we’re supposed to revel in it, but also grandpa Mack (Wayne Dehart – I COME IN PEACE, ROBOCOP 2, LOOPER) is in the other room listening to the news on the radio, and we know what that means. Things are gonna turn, they have to. And when we’re all worried what Mack is gonna do we get a stark reminder that we also gotta worry about what Butch is gonna do.
This scene really illustrates the movie’s emphasis on the grey areas. This guy Mack drives a tractor and almost runs over Butch and Philip in their stolen station wagon hiding out in a cornfield late at night. He could chase them off or call the cops but instead he talks them into staying the night with his family, offers them breakfast in the morning. He’s a saint! Furthermore, Mack points out that it’s not his field, he’s just a worker, so this is the sort of working class “we’re in this together” gesture of brotherhood that’s always an effective audience-sympathy ploy. Plus, he and his family are African-American in a time and place not known for the racial equality.
But in the middle of their friendly breakfast Mack casually smacks his 7 year old grandson upside the head, and it’s immediately obvious from Butch’s expression that the party’s over. Both Butch and Philip have instant reactions to parents manhandling kids, we’ve seen this before. We know with Butch it has to do with how his dad treated him, I figure with Philip it might too. Anyway it’s another classic movie ploy: Butch is protective of children, Mack smacks them around, we know who to side with. But then all the sudden we got Butch tying the family up, pointing a gun at them. Realistically we gotta admit that Butch is the worst of the two, but we got the cinematic Stockholm Syndrome, so he gets a handicap with us.
Who is left to make the decision of what to do here? A little boy in a dirty Casper costume. In a perfect world, that wouldn’t happen. I wasn’t expecting it to happen at that point in the movie either. It’s a very traditional on-the-lam road movie type of scenario but it keeps going down roads I didn’t expect.
(What’s up with the waitress [Linda Hart] who starts aggressively hitting on him? And why does she seem upset about him maybe having a wife? Who did she think the kid was?)
Hancock didn’t write SAVING MR. BANKS (though of course he could’ve rewritten some of it uncredited), but I thought it was interesting that this movie opens kinda similarly, with dreamy overhead views of a character lounging in the grass as gusts of wind come through. Both are out of sequence scenes meant to at first confuse and disorient you. I wonder if it’s a coincidence or some weird idea that Hancock keeps trying to get right.
But of course it’s Clint’s authorship I’m looking for here. A PERFECT WORLD is a great example of what I like about his direction: it’s deceptively simple. Camerawork, editing, music and acting are all very classical and understated, pretty quiet, not trying to show off much. The story and characters seem very simple and traditional, but on further examination nothing is clean cut. I think we’re supposed to appreciate Butch’s good qualities, but know that what he’s doing is fucked up. We’re supposed to be touched by the friendship that happens between these two – a doomed guy without a father around doing what he can to keep a kid without a father around from suffering his fate – but also be at least a little disturbed by it. Red is a genuine good guy, but just like him we don’t know if he did the right thing. These aren’t heroes and villains, they’re just people. Butch says it best when Mack’s wife, under duress, tells him she thinks he’s “a good man.”
“Nome’, I ain’t a good man,” he says. “Ain’t the worst neither, jus’ a different breed.”
P.S. After posting this I realized I had this song going through my head:
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.