One of the things that proves to be enjoyable when going through some of the work of an actor or director with a large filmography is the opportunity to discover or revisit work that may be have been swept under the rug of time through the years. And in between his Oscar-winning work Unforgiven and his widely anticipated adaptation of the best-selling The Bridges of Madison County, Clint Eastwood kept the muscle memory warm with A Perfect World, an underrated work with an all-star cast.
Written by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), Eastwood directs and stars as Red Garnett, a U.S. Marshal who is a close friend of the Texas governor in 1963. Red is dispatched with finding two escaped inmates, one of which is Butch Haines (Kevin Costner, at the time fresh from his own Oscar turn with Dances With Wolves), a lifelong criminal that Red may have a personal stake in. Complicating matters is that Red and his inmate friend have taken a young boy hostage. The boy, a youngster named Phillip (T.J. Lowther), is the only son in a household full of girls, including a single mother who raises the children as Jehovah's Witnesses. As the hostage situation evolves, Butch develops a kinship with Philip (whom he later renames 'Buzz'), and Philip's friendship with Butch evolves into a paternal one. Moving back to the law enforcement pursuit, Red's thoughts on Butch seem to evolve with the help of Sally Gerber (Laura Dern, Everything Must Go), a behavioral criminologist part of the manhunt at the governor's request.
One of the things I remember about the film was that even past his self-portrayal in Unforgiven, Eastwood continued in A Perfect World by showing us his character was flawed, human, perhaps not so tough anymore. This was made even more so by the story in this film, was someone who got away with bending the rules a little too fast and loose. But as the film goes on, Eastwood (as Red) shows us an individual who seems to rue that this decision has come home to roost, and he begins to wonder how many other similar decisions where he (to paraphrase) bought the presiding judge a steak to impact a decision on a case. How many other Butch Haines were there that he did not know of? Eastwood handles this potential regret beautifully. At first, Red jokes with those around him, perhaps as a means of some sort of vanity or insecurity. The evolution for Red is not one of degradation, but perhaps more of a chink in the armor, and it is engaging and worth watching, helped along by Dern's performance as well.
As Eastwood's co-star in the film, Costner's character tends to possess a strange sort of charisma that might be on (or possibly above?) par with his John Dunbar role from Wolves. Butch is calculating, precise and cold-blooded when he needs to, and Costner has fun with the role. He does not tend to over think the character, which could turn him into a muddled waste of a role (Waterworld) and does not lose his accent as the film goes on (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). With the initial moments and for most of the film, he charms Philip. The two get along well, Butch is Philip's carte blanche to do what he likes while being away from his mother's grasp. The film starts with Philip's family quietly brushing off a group of trick or treaters because of their religion. In addition, in Philip, Butch tends to live his childhood through him to a degree, whether it is stealing things or drinking as much RC as you want. By providing Philip with something Philip wants, he does the same for himself to a small amount. As the chase intensifies and the law becomes closer, Butch's accommodations for Philip become terser. This is partly due to their bubble of friendship becoming increasingly pierced, but Butch seems to realize that the cops are near and some hard choices have to be made in the process.
Through Eastwood's direction, Hancock's story is a confident one. At superficial glance, A Perfect World's 138 minute runtime may seem somewhat intimidating, but Eastwood lets the story unfold at its own pace, letting the escape and subsequent pursuit take its own time. Yet with the runtime and the story's evolution, few moments feel uninteresting or wasted. When I watched this again for this review after some years, I was somewhat turned off by Red's connection to Butch from years past. It felt contrived and convenient. However, said connection feels like a minor qualm when gorging on the performances from Costner and Eastwood, along with some familiar faces in the supporting cast.
It felt good to go back and look at A Perfect World almost twenty years after its release. There are smaller moments in it that tend to make your belief cringe, but it remains a intriguing look at two actors whose acting talents were on display in full regalia. It is nice to have time shine a light on this because if nothing else, it is worth revisiting in its most attractive format yet.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Warner rolls A Perfect World out with an AVC-encoded 2.40:1 high-definition widescreen presentation that looks decent. Longtime Eastwood Director of Photography Jack N. Green's work looks nice on Blu-ray, with image detail being present on facial pores and in some instances of fabric threads. Within the law enforcement search party, the black in the FBI sharpshooter's suit is consistent and a little deeper than expected, and the film grain is present during viewing also. The background detail and clarity tends to veer from being average to possessing some softness, but overall this is a solid-looking catalog title.
I was mildly surprised to see a DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track be the choice for the film, but it does not perform badly here. Dialogue is well balanced during the listening experience and in the scene when Butch and Philip are parked at the side of the road just as it transitions from paved to unpaved, the outdoor noises of bugs and insects can be easily discerned in the rear channels. This also occurs in another quieter outdoor shot of Red building a fire for the group after the trailer crashes in the woods. Moreover, in the louder scenes of the chase, the low-end of the subwoofer fires nicely and only when necessary, along with a later crash into a police car. Gunshots ring out crisply and glass breaks freshly. The louder sequences tend to lack a convincing feeling of immersion but sound fine, and for a relatively dormant Eastwood film, the lossless track does fine by the production.
Just the trailer, and that is it. Boo.
With Warner's Blu-ray release of A Perfect World, perhaps done as a celebration of sorts for Clint Eastwood's 82nd birthday, we get some high-definition love to what I think is an underrated wonder within the director's body of work. Technically the disc is solid, though it includes bupkis on the bonus material front. It is definitely worth a recommendation to see if you have not, and an eye towards buying it if you wind up enjoying it like I do.