on June 1, 2004
Continuing his exploration of what makes a man good, bad -- just plain human-- is what this film delves into, even more deeply than in the stunning "Unforgiven" (to his credit, Eastwood never pretends, as some male writers and directors do, that he understands women; instead, he admits that we are mysteries to him, and concentrates his energies on what he does understand: American men). Refusing to subscribe to typical American cinematic over-simplifications of "good vs. evil," Clint Eastwood delivers films that make you realize very quickly that there is no room for such absolutes when dealing with human truths. This thesis, which he has been pursuing for some time now, perhaps starting with "Tightrope" where the line between good and evil blurs to invisibility, he has, with "A Perfect World," given us a translation of John Lee Hancock's brilliant screenplay that is both beautiful and almost too painful to bear. Noted by critics at the time of its relase, but completley ignored by audiences who, it seems, found Kevin Costner as an escaped convict just too unpalatable, this film takes us on a complex journey deep into the souls of two tortured men, Costner's "Butch Haynes" and Eastwood's "Red," the Texas Ranger who is charged with running the escaped Haynes down. The past and its consequences are a continual theme in all of Eastwood's important works, and in this film, the ironies are neck-deep and take time and patience from the viewer to unravel. Even the decision by Red to commandeer the vehicle the Governer intends to ride in the next day when President Kennedy will be in Dallas (this is 1963) brings up the question: would the Governer have been shot had he been in this vehicle instead of in the President's car? This is one subtle example of how decision and consequence are continously explored in this most thought-provoking of films.
Kevin Costner gave probably the best performance of his life, cast against type as a complex man who cannot be called either bad or good, merely profoundly human, whose life has followed a course laid by poverty, homelessness, a suicide mother and a felonious father, a bit of high spirits, and high intelligence with nowhere to go, but most importantly, the Texas penal system as it was managed in the 60's. Haynes' moral center, despite his acts, never wavers, and it is that moral center that propels events which finally spiral out of his control and into tragedy. But we see, clearly, that even a so-called "bad" man can be good enough to inspire genuine, deep love that, in the end, redeems both him and the person whose initial action started the long chain of events that ends with the 36 hours over which this film takes place (we discover who this is along the way, and I don't want to lessen the impact of any discoveries). Another reviewer here implied that it was Eastwood who is responsible for Costner's excellence in this film, but having seen so many interviews with his actors, it is generally understood that Eastwood casts his actors, then leaves them alone to find the character and reveal him without a great deal of interference, so it would seem that the credit is, indeed, Costner's. Sadly, he never again worked against type, perhaps because of this film's commercial failure, but this performance will always stand as testament to what he can do, and never is that performance better than in the house where Cajun music on the Victrola and senseless violence against a boy much of an age as Butch himself was when violence entered his life, combine to send him into a sort of fugue state of memory, pain, longing, rage, and ultimately, the loss of control that brings things to a terrible end.
The boy, Philip, with whom he bonds (played beautifully by the transparent T.J. Lowther) also gives us his heart laid bare, and the rapport between the two of them is completely believable. We understand the child's repeated choices to stay with Butch, and the reasons go far beyond the superficial need for a father (his is gone), and into the realm of love. It is from Haynes that he learns the lesson that exacts the price of Haynes' escape, but then it is his love for Haynes that makes it bearable, and even right, for both of them, as in the end, he becomes the protector--the man--whose job it is to help a loved-one who can no longer help himself.
When a film's characters are torn apart by the end of a film, its viewers should be, too, and we definitely are. It is a difficult, heart-breaking journey that Clint Eastwood insists we take with him, but taking it brings us to the point where we should start each day: from scratch. Red's last line is, "I don't know a da*n thing anymore," and that is exactly the point and the purpose of this story. We should never, ever think we have all the answers; to do so is fatal, as Red learns. Every day we should be willing to examine our beliefs and look back, with honesty, at what we've done, and look forward to what we're about to do with eyes wide open and with some sort of awareness of potential damage, and know, always, that there is no good "us," no bad "them," but that we're all only human beings, deeply flawed and yet filled with the capacity for love and connection, each of us doing the best we can.