Top critical review
Quirky little movie
on December 7, 2003
"A Perfect World" is the kind of slow-fuse drama that both Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner are known for. Both filmmakers prefer to focus on character development over fast-paced action; both gradually build their films up to emotionally draining conclusions (see "Unforgiven," "Open Range," and this film).
This movie defies all expectations and emerges as a thoughtful, quirky little drama about the consequences of child abuse and neglect. Though billed as a confrontation between Clint and Kev, the two stars play only one scene together, and that in long shot. The movie consciously avoids over-the-top action and melodrama, finding instead strange moments of humor that emerge when you least expect it. There is violence in the picture, and yet another mature consideration of gunplay (as in "Unforgiven"), but most of the violence is off screen and is not the focal point of the picture. This isn't "Dirty Harry."
Costner gets the lion's share of screen time as Butch Haynes, an escaped convict who takes a little boy hostage. The movie isn't so much about a manhunt, however, as it is the stunningly odd relationship that develops between con and kid. Both have been held captive: Butch, by the penal system, the kid, by institutionalized religion. Both are also without fathers. It's a sad, doomed relationship, but one in which both characters find redemption.
The movie is flawed. Clint's direction is uneven; I think there were some missed dramatic opportunities here. The climax is noticeably protracted; I doubt a man with a gut wound could wander as far out in the country as does one of the characters. You could almost say that, in spite of all the big stars, nothing happens. And Laura Dern is completely out of place and mis-cast; her final scene (a knee in the groin to Bradley Whitford) plays jarringly to the audience.
The saving graces are Costner and T.J. Lowther, as the kid, Phillip. Costner shows that he has true grit as an actor, giving a movie star turn that is far-removed from his Crash Davis in "Bull Durham" and John Dunbar in "Dances With Wolves." We can see that Butch is messed up and not a good person -- but neither, as he himself points out, is he the worst. This is one of Costner's best performances and I really hope he returns to this style of work.
Eastwood is credible as Texas Ranger Red Garnett, but that's about it; I understand his character was extensively re-written so Clint could have more screen time, and it feels that way.
In short, Costner's performance for a change far outshines the movie that it's in. "A Perfect World" isn't bad, but it's not the best, either.