A Perfect World
It’s easy to assume, retrospectively, that Clint’s career renaissance continued uninterrupted from Unforgiven to, pretty much, now, with his workhorse output ensuring he was never more than a movie away from another success. The nineties weren’t such a sure thing, though. Follow-up In the Line of Fire, a (by then) very rare actor-for-hire gig, made him seem like a new-found sexagenarian box-office draw, having last mustered a dependably keen audience response as far back as 1986 and Heartbreak Ridge. But at home, at least, only The Bridges of Madison County – which he took over as director at a late stage, having already agreed to star – and the not-inexpensive Space Cowboys really scored before his real feted streak began with Mystic River. However, there was another movie in there that did strong business. Just not in the US: A Perfect World.
Anything else Clint directed and starred in during this period – The Rookie, White Hunter Black Heart, Absolute Power, True Crime, Blood Work – failed to find an audience (although Absolute Power, which I quite like, may have done okay overall; global box office figures aren’t available). Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (at that point only his second non-starring film as a director) bombed. A Perfect World couldn’t fail; It was Eastwood’s follow up to Unforgiven, and Costner was on a dynamite run (four back-to-back hits from Dances with Wolves, to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, to JFK, to The Bodyguard). In the US, it struggled to make $31m (its budget, pretty much). International was another story, though; $105m, enough to put it in the same flowering range as those other Eastwood hits that decade.
Which is a good thing. For all its occasional slips in characterisation and delivery – per your standard Clint movie, it could be a LOT tighter – it’s probably nearest to his previous year’s Oscar winner of any of his efforts in terms of thematic resonance. One where the content comes naturally, as opposed to attempting to adapt himself to poor-fit material (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) or snap into an over-familiar genre groove (Absolute Power, True Crime, Bloodwork). Clint wasn’t planning to star in his production of John Lee Hancock’s screenplay and had his eye on Denzel as his lead (in recent years, Washington had appeared in both Heart Condition and Ricochet, neither of them movies you’d expect from the later, precision-engineered performer). When Costner came on board, he suggested Clint take the supporting role. Which is a very Clint type role (sexist, macho Texas Ranger Chief Red Garnett, but nevertheless given the profound punchline). Costner’s Butch Haynes is not that, though. Or at least, not the very Costner role audiences wanted.
Costner had tried this before, and he would try it again. No one wanted to see him in Revenge, and even Waterworld’s action beats couldn’t resolve his unreconstituted fishy antihero. As The New York Times’ post-mortem suggested, “Warner Brothers executives and movie producers are convinced, first, that Mr. Costner is one of those quintessentially American movie stars (like Gary Cooper) whom audiences demand to see in heroic roles, like the ones he played in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “Dances with Wolves“. Costner’s unwillingness to feed this monkey may have been his undoing, or perhaps it was simply audiences falling out of love with him; nothing he made from this point would have the box-office reach of the period up to The Bodyguard (Waterworld coming closest). And after expensive bomb The Postman (following expensive bomb Wyatt Earp), studios weren’t willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’d occasionally produce the goods (Thirteen Days, Open Range), but the elder figure, the role Clint plays here, would be the one awaiting him.
Clint was sanguine about A Perfect World’s failure (“I always felt this movie was high risk… the audience was probably expecting two guys who’d be at each other, or two pals on a wild adventure. It wasn’t that kind of film“). Hancock suggested “Perhaps people wanted lots of great scenes of Clint and Kevin drinking beers, looking at each other, giving each other a hard time. This movie isn’t that”. Indeed, what it was was Costner’s escaped convict befriending a boy (TJ Lowther’s Philip) taken hostage, the kind of thing that often doesn’t end well in Hollywood (Spielberg was reportedly interested in the script at one point, which would have been awful: from the director of Hook).
The New York Times highlighted this element as a possible reason for its failure: “‘A child in jeopardy is just a no-no,’ insisted one studio marketing executive who spoke on condition of anonymity. ‘Especially in the current national climate, where television news shows highlight tragic stories of abducted youngsters, the movie was probably unwittingly hurt by real-life events,’ the executive said.” This goes back to the tone of Bruce Robinson’s comments regarding In Dreams (another Spielberg was involved in), and how Neil Jordan changed his screenplay in a manner that entertained the very thing Robinson had explicitly avoided (child endangerment).
If that seemed iffy, try getting past scenes in which Pugh asks to see Philip’s “pecker” and is subsequently shot by Butch after assaulting the boy. Butch also has his own look at said pecker later, reassuring Philip it’s “a good size for a boy your age”. Whether or not this can be regarded as legitimately “rites of passage”, drawing attention to such matters is asking for a dubious response (unless you’re James Gunn; then you can “creatively” mock all your bad press in The Suicide Squad). In context, it’s simply part of the paternal relationship developing between Butch and “Buzz”, one fuelled by absent fathers but also by a keen inquiry into the morality overlaid by society (or religion) and actual, inherent morality.
Because, for all that Butch is the antihero, he’s fairly clearly painted as a good-guy criminal for most of the movie. Pugh is so loathsome, Keith Szarabajka dutifully making him irredeemably villainous, the kind of character that’s essential to a certain kind of movie (Sam Rockwell in The Green Mile), such that his dispatch is seen to be a thoroughly good thing.
Costner and Lowther – who, unlike many a child actor, is unselfconscious and in the moment – have strong chemistry and rapport, such that their scenes tend to benefit from Eastwood’s minimalist approach when it comes to editing his material. You don’t doubt Butch means to do right by the boy, even as his methods are misjudged; Dern’s criminologist Sally Gerber asserts Butch and she are the two most intelligent minds involved in this messy business, but we don’t really see Butch eluding his pursuers in those terms. He’s unable to overcome his prevailing emotions, becoming too engrossed in improving Philip’s life.
In which terms, the idea of Trick or Treating as an expression of freedom is problematic; Jehovah Witnesses may be inherently stifling in those terms, but that doesn’t mean the freedom Butch is offering is an answer, as Philip discovers. Butch brings with him corrupting influences (stealing, killing), no matter how fierce his personal moral code is (“Just a loaner, Bob. Not to worry” he advises on stealing a station wagon, then informing Philip that, by putting his family’s safety first, Bob is “A fine family man. About the best thing a fella could hope to be”).
Events eventually confirm that Butch’s parental pose isn’t enough; he lacks the distance to see through his own pain. Philip’s “List of everything you wanted to do but were never allowed to” is a bargaining chip to his release, but Philip’s assertion that, despite her strictness, “She’s a real good mom” doesn’t really mesh with Butch’s own loner experience (adults lie: “My mom says he’ll come back. Probably when I’m ten or so” is just one Philip was told by his mom).
Philip has already been made to kill – Butch, essentially, although we might debate whether that bullet would have done for him, had Bradley Whitford’s FBI agent not finished the job – by the time he is reunited with his mum (Jennifer Griffin). A scene you absolutely would not get now, not even with Denzel as Butch, is the one in which Butch and Philip are taken in by African-American farmer Mack (Wayne Dehart, who in unflattering career typecasting, has played at least three different vagrants) and his family. Part of A Perfect World’s tension throughout is the threat of the inevitable: that we like Butch, but his terminal fate is inevitable (even if the bookend shots of his lying in the grass, sun beating down, are not immediately recognisable as his lifeless body). It’s here, though, that Butch’s capacity for disproportionate violence, towards those who are undeserving, is seen in all its unsavoury detail.
Mack physically abuses his son Cleveland, and Butch eventually snaps, tying up the family; the scene very clearly has nothing to do with race and everything to do domestic violence, and the reframing of Butch would be striking even without this aspect. With it, the scene feels additionally dangerous, almost transgressive by current standards.
It’s most notable – as a set piece – for the manner in which it embraces the cues of movies around it through making music central to its effectiveness. I find it difficult to believe Sea of Love fashioning a serial killer’s modus operandi from an oldie wasn’t an influence on Tarantino employing Stuck in the Middle of You, but it was certainly an established trope by the time of Striking Distance – 1993, like A Perfect World – using Little Red Riding Hood (who knows if that was even there to start with, given the extensive reshoots it endured). Lennie Niehaus’ Big Fran’s Baby is initially a melodious delight when Butch dances with Lottie (Mary Alice of A Different World and The Matrix Revolutions). When he puts it on again, its tone becomes entirely more sinister (notably, if you remove the bagpipes and ease the tempo, it very much resembles your standard reflective Eastwood piano tinkle). For my money, this one is more powerful than the much-vaunted Tarantino scene, because there’s so much more emotional and thematic friction.
Appended to the Butch and Philip plotline are the scenes with Red, Sally and Agent Lee (the most atypical Whitford performance you’re likely to see). In some respects, this represents the picture’s light relief, a trio of squabbling stereotypes in a trailer (“Kind of like a silver whale”; eventually, it will be beached). Their task is set against the backdrop of an election year (1963), with Red expected to get voter-influencing results.
On one hand, Red’s sexism is the point. On the other, Sally’s given little fuel to support a strong character in her own right, so jabs – the trailer leaving without her, puking at the scene of a dead body while the men are impervious – appear more as the position of the movie than a commentary on the environment. She still needs protecting (when Lee gets leery) and, if she is proved right – the ridiculed one is the only one with a brain – the supporting nature of these characters means none of it really lands. Even Red, a “hillbilly Sherlock Holmes”, is revealed as fairly ineffectual, despite ultimately decent intentions (he had Butch incarcerated so as to avoid his release to the worse influence of his father). He only really comes into contemplative focus with his marvellous final line:
Sally: You know you did everything you could, don’t you?
Red: I don’t know nothing. Not one damn thing.
It’s the kind of observation that forms a rebuff to all those too-easy shots at Clint the Republican. Eastwood’s tension between conservatism and liberalism make his movies – at their best – much more interesting than standard diluted, nodding weak Hollywood swill. Which isn’t to say there aren’t some very clumsy moments here, besides the failure to give Sally a her due (still, Dern got her own back a quarter of a century later in The Last Jedi… Right?) The final slaying of Butch is possibly that splash overmilked, and certainly done no favours by having Red punch out Lee and Sally knee him in balls as a concession to a much dumber movie. As is Butch spoon feeding a doubtful audience (“Truth is, I don’t think I’d have killed ’em, though. Only killed two people in my whole life. One hurt my mama… one hurt you”). That coming after his great piece of self-analysis too (“No, I ain’t a good man. I ain’t the worst either”).
There are other fine moments in Hancock’s screenplay. If the time-travel car riff is a bit of a fizzle, Butch schooling Pugh in the difference between threats and facts works like gangbusters. There’s also the peculiar seduction scene presaged by a waitress spooning ketchup back in the bottle at the end of her shift. And Butch characterising an excessively cheerful department store’s staff (“You folks are about the grinningest bunch I’ve ever seen”). And the simple, brief meeting of the movie’s stars (“Do I know you, friend?”)
Talking of which, as was stars wont at the time (Bruce Willis reportedly the worst offender), Clint had no time for Kevin attempting heirs and graces. Costner had infuriated pal Kevin Reynolds on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with his interfering and would go there again on Waterworld; here, it seems, he had an art movie in mind, as opposed to Clint’s move-it-along approach, leading to ex-cinematographer Jack Green recalling the only argument he ever saw involving his director. Kev wouldn’t come out of his trailer, so Clint decided to shoot an extra in close-ups instead: “‘You shot the scene with my extra?’ Costner said, in what would be the first of several exchanges with his director. ‘I get paid to burn film,’ Eastwood said.” Nothing like bursting a self-important star’s bubble. Nevertheless, this is a great Costner performance, one of his very best, so Clint was largely vindicated this time (you can’t say any of those star vehicles – Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Bodyguard, Waterworld, The Postman – elicited keeper performances).
Clint rebuffs suggestions he was actively analysing his next movie moves (transitioning from adoring violence to interrogating it), but both Unforgiven and A Perfect World unmistakably go together in suggesting – however cathartic it is in the former’s case – that such acts leave no one involved unscarred. The director may have flirted more overtly with awards vehicles since, or ones attempting to plough melodramatic furrows, but there’s a certain masculine milieu where he tends to strike gold, when he does. He does so here. He’d later do it with Richard Jewell. In between, there’s a great deal of very variable material, none of it reaching those relative peaks.