Academy Award winners Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood confront each other from opposite sides of the law in A Perfect World, an acclaimed, multi-layered manhunt saga (directed by Eastwood) that rumbles down Texas back-roads toward a harrowing collision with fate. Costner plays Butch Haynes, a hardened prison escapee on the lam with a young hostage (T.J. Lowther in a remarkable film debut) who sees in Butch the father figure he never had. Eastwood is wily Texas Ranger Red Garnett, leading deputies and a criminologist (Laura Dern) on a statewide pursuit. Red knows every road and pothole in the Panhandle. What’s more, he knows the elusive Haynes — because their paths have crossed before.
A Perfect World represents one of the high water marks in the careers of both Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner as director and actor respectively. Eastwood balances the drama and humor brilliantly while Costner takes what should be an unlikable character and humanizes him enough that we can see his worth beyond his flaws. Much like Eastwood’s previous effort Unforgiven, A Perfect World shows us realistic characters that aren’t easy to classify as a white hat or a black hat stereotype, but instead in most cases a mixture of both which makes for a more ambiguous and mature story that feels somewhat fatalistic but honest.
The film opens in during the early sixties in Texas with two convicts escaping the state penitentiary in Huntsville. The two convicts couldn’t be more different in both personality and intelligence. Robert “Butch” Haynes (Kevin Costner) is the smarter of the two while Terry Pugh (Keith Szarabajka) is the hyper-violent career criminal who we later learn has pedophiliac tendencies. Butch makes it clear even as they escape, that they aren’t friends and that he would prefer it if they weren’t together. In fact, Butch is planning to ditch Terry the first chance he gets once they get far enough away from the prison.
While making their escape, Terry enters the house of eight year old Phillip Perry (T.J. Lowther), where Terry tries to molest Phillip’s mother until Butch throws him across the room. Their commotion attracts a neighbor who arrives with a weapon, which forces Butch and Terry to take Phillip as a hostage so they can make their escape. Stealing a car, the trio heads out of town with the tension between Butch and Terry growing stronger. Terry’s insecurities get the better of him and he foolishly threatens Butch which causes Butch to teach Terry what the difference between a threat and a fact is, when he punches Terry in the face and breaks his nose. When they stop to get snacks, Butch leaves the gun he took from Terry in Phillip’s hands to make sure that Terry doesn’t do anything stupid. Terry manages to get the gun and then tries to molest Phillip who escapes from the car and runs into a cornfield to hide. Needless to say, when Butch realizes what happened, he isn’t happy with Terry and decides to finish their partnership for good.
Meanwhile, their escape has attracted the attention of Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Clint Eastwood) who has been tasked with recovering the pair of prisoners. With the Governor of Texas involving himself in the investigation for political gain, the case becomes a lot more high profile and Red is assigned extra help including a criminologist named Sally Gerber (Laura Dern) and a F.B.I. sniper called Bobby Lee (Bradley Whitford). Cramped together in the Governor’s airstream trailer, the three clash due to their differing approaches and philosophies. Red prefers a simple approach, while Sally advocates getting into the convict’s psyche and Bobby would just be happy to shoot them.
Butch and Phillip start to bond and we learn that both have had rough childhoods and missing fathers. Since Phillip’s mother is a devout Jehovah’s Witness, she has never allowed her children go out trick or treating or to celebrate Christmas which he resented. When Phillip sees a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume in a store, he immediately wants to wear it which Butch doesn’t object to. Phillip even steals the costume and it’s easy to see that his future could end up like Butch’s. Butch even starts seeing Phillip as a younger version of himself and starts to act very paternal to the boy. Overjoyed at his new sense of freedom, Phillip becomes a willing accomplice and assists Butch with stealing food, clothes, and more, but we learn that he draws the line at killing which will put him between Butch and anyone that gets in his way.
This is one of those movies that features some Oscar caliber acting and some fantastic direction but it’s pretty depressing and without much hope. Tonally, A Perfect World is very similar to Unforgiven, where nothing is black and white but instead many shades of grey. Butch is without a doubt a career criminal and a killer, but the more time we spend with him the more we see that he is a product of his environment despite his charisma. Try as he might to change his path, he is still a man with a propensity for killing when forced to, despite his genial nature. Kevin Costner delivers one of his best performances here and he shows both the good and the bad sides of Butch so well that you feel sorry for him even while you are praying that he will be stopped. T.J. Lowther does a great job and is one of the few child actors that doesn’t seem fake or precocious. He plays Phillip as real as possible and you really feel for the little boy that must choose between the man he has grown to love and to do the right thing.
Clint Eastwood is always good as an actor (and as a director) and his portrayal of Red is very similar to his other roles. Red is tough but fair and he’s a man of few words. It’s not a large part but he is perfect for it but I wish that he had gotten more screen-time with Costner. The supporting cast is decent in their roles but really Dern and Whitford are barely in the movie but they make the most of their time as they can, while Keith Szarabajka makes for a very convincing rapist and murderer. The movie’s ending seems almost preordained but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s moving and effective.
This 1080p (2.40:1) transfer is pretty good for an older catalog title but it could have been better. For most of the film’s running time there’s some nice detail present but every once in a while, soft shots pop up in certain scenes. Most of the time, you can see fine details such as the stubble on Red’s face and the sweat dripping down Butch’s brow. Colors look nice if a little washed out, but the black levels are fairly solid and dark. Jack N. Green’s cinematography looks very nice on Blu-ray which suits his style of natural lighting. There is some light grain but nothing to be concerned about and there’s no blemishes to speak of.
A Perfect World’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is also better than expected for a dramatic movie and an older one at that. The front channels offer some very clear dialogue that’s never hard to understand. The rear channels provide some very nice atmosphere which is a lot more noticeable in this movie since it’s a fairly quiet one to begin with. When the movie does get loud, whether it’s gunshots, car crashes, or windows being shot, the lossless mix comes to life and delivers. The score by Lennie Niehaus is well balanced with the rest of the film’s sound effects and dialogue. Overall, this is an above average mix and one that’s better than can be usually found on dramas.
Sadly, the only extra on this disc is the theatrical trailer which is going to hurt the overall score.
A Perfect World is a very good movie that’s filled with some excellent acting by Kevin Costner and T.J. Lowther and expertly directed by Clint Eastwood. This Blu-ray offers an improvement in the audio and video presentations over the previous DVD release but it’s too bad that there’s no real extras for it. A director’s commentary, some deleted scenes, a behind the scenes featurette, and more would have been nice to get. Since this is currently the best version of this film you can get, I recommend it until an anniversary or special edition of the film comes out.
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