A Perfect World

(Clint Eastwood, USA, 1993)


Here is a reverie that, once upon a time, it was hard for a besotted film critic to suppress.


Between the return of Robert Altman to commercial filmmaking, the appearance of the best films by masters like Martin Scorsese or Brian De Palma, and the long overdue acclaim finally granted Clint Eastwood as a director, it seemed in the early ‘90s as if contemporary American cinema had at last revived its golden era – the era that began with Arthur Penn's The Miracle Worker in 1962 and abruptly vanished when George Lucas made Star Wars in 1977.


Eastwood’s A Perfect World is sheer bliss for anyone who has ever loved American cinema. Echoes of great, melancholic movies like Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973) fill this resolutely dark tale of escaped criminal Butch (Kevin Costner) who takes an impressionable young boy (T. J. Lowther) across America as his hostage.


But Eastwood reaches back further into cinema history than his flashy, mannerist contemporaries: in its understated, rich classicism, the film harks back to John Ford's The Searchers (1956).


In the masterly Unforgiven (1992), Eastwood found a precise form for his style and sensibility: stories of maximum moral ambiguity where the guilt for socially transgressive acts never comes to rest in a single character, and the motivations behind good and evil behaviour alike remain profoundly undecidable. Butch is a remarkable anti-hero, at once charming, pitiable and unnervingly psychotic. The long, nerve-racking sequence in which Butch subjects a poor, black family to the entire gamut of his suppressed emotions is perhaps the tour de force of Eastwood's directorial career.


Fine as it is, the film shares a structural problem with The Piano (1993): the central scenes with Costner (who has never been better used) and Lowther are brilliant, but the secondary material needed to pace out the narrative is far less strong. In this case, the sub-plot of Eastwood and Laura Dern heading a police team adds to the film's range of moods and underlines its key themes, but becomes at moments facile and schematic.


No one, however, should miss A Perfect World; it is a complex, lyrical, confronting achievement which ranks, with De Palma's Carlito's Way (1993), among the very best American films of its year.

MORE Eastwood: Million Dollar Baby, Absolute Power, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Bridges of Madison County, Space Cowboys, Blood Work, Pale Rider, Mystic River, The Mule

© Adrian Martin July 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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