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Those of you still sobbing after My Life needn’t bother blowing your noses. Fast on its heels comes a film that is very nearly its equal in the Kleenex sweepstakes—Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World, which tells of the father/son bond that develops between an escaped convict and an adorable 8-year-old boy. Its shameless bathos isn’t so surprising, but Eastwood the actor’s non-presence in his own film is. Unlikely as it sounds, Eastwood is here overshadowed by co-star Kevin Costner. And if nothing else, the film stands as an affirmation of the fact that the insufferable Costner is much easier to stomach as a bad guy.
But it must be said that World‘s bad guy is bad only in the most relative terms. Butch Haynes (Costner) is an escaped middle-age convict who is still reeling from a troubled childhood. Though he’s a gun-toting smart guy, he has one oh-so-tender weakness: He can’t bear to see children mistreated. After Butch and his cellmate break out of a Texas prison in 1963, they take a young boy, Phillip Perry (T.J. Lowther), hostage and head for the open road, hoping to outrun the Texas Rangers. Butch’s shady pal, who doesn’t have what you’d call a way with children, isn’t around for long, and soon it’s little Phillip who’s riding shotgun in the getaway car.
World is fundamentally a road movie. And despite the filmmakers’ efforts to craft a compelling subplot, it is Butch and Phil’s road movie. The pair’s flight has its counterpart in the law’s pursuit, specifically the duo of Ranger Red Garnett (Eastwood) and criminologist Sally Gerber (Laura Dern). World makes a wan attempt to play up the parallels between pursued and pursuer, but the law enforcement angle never becomes anything more than an unwelcome distraction from the central story, not unlike a series of commercial breaks. We learn that Red had a hand in landing the teen-age Butch in reform school, but this half-baked theme about the long-term ramifications of juvenile detention peters out swiftly and resoundingly.
Equally underdeveloped is the film’s “dawn of feminism” motif, in which feisty Sally must hold her own in the company of scoffing Texan good old boys. In one scene that has a nearly identical parallel in Eastwood’s In the Line of Fire, Red assumes that the female criminologist is a secretary. Thereafter, the pair’s respective genders provide fodder for a spate of his-and-hers witticisms that juxtapose intellectual blather (hers, natch) and no-nonsense guyspeak (his). But aside from describing the lawmen’s enclave as a “boys’ locker room,” Sally doesn’t have much to say for herself. Later, Red vindicates himself by assisting her in warding off the advances of another man—the point ostensibly being that traditional male behavior has a good side, too. (Overt sexism in the film serves as a marker for rottenness: Of the film’s two male chauvinists, one is a trigger-happy creep, the other a drunken psycho.)
Many of World‘s themes are echoed in other recent Eastwood efforts. Most prominent among these is the presumably autobiographical figure of the old and old- fashioned man who must cope with the effects—both physical and societal—of changing times. Eastwood’s Red is another such man, but he doesn’t have much to do here aside from maintaining a manly silence in tough situations and consistently addressing Sally as “Missy.” Like Eastwood’s Unforgiven, the film seems to dwell with unnecessary fixity on the details of physical violence, but, fortunately, this particular proclivity is only occasionally in evidence.
It’s the sticky-sweet relationship between Butch and Phil that is at the heart of the film. Phil, it seems, is a fatherless boy whose mother is a strict Jehovah’s Witness. When we meet him, he has just missed out on Halloween (Mom says it’s forbidden) and is gazing wistfully out his window as it’s splattered with vegetables by the neighborhood kids. As luck would have it, Butch lost his dad too, and soon the convict is performing such traditional fatherly duties as reassuring young Phil about his penis size. Butch has Phil make a list of all the fun stuff he isn’t allowed to do, then strives to make it up to him. As saccharine as it is, the relationship between Phil and Butch is a reasonably convincing one until the film gives in to mawkishness at midpoint.
Needless to say, their friendship is doomed. And as if to bolster this mood of impending disaster, we learn that President Kennedy is coming to the state a mere two weeks hence. Nothing more is made of this development, which does serve to anchor the film in time, though certainly both Eastwood (In the Line of Fire) and Costner (JFK) have gotten considerable mileage out of the assassination. Here, however, the link is just one among many thematic dead ends which are as plentiful as the literal ones Butch encounters among the back roads of the Texas panhandle.