One of Clint Eastwood’s most underrated pictures, A PERFECT WORLD features Kevin Costner’s single best performance ever. Maybe that’s why Costner doesn’t get a whole lot of credit – because not a lot of people have seen A PERFECT WORLD. I’m not totally sure why that is, unless people were confused by the title’s similarity to that of the Cosby Show spinoff that was still popular at the time. This is a different perfect world from where they’re coming from.
Here Costner plays a fugitive criminal named Butch who kidnaps a small boy named Phillip – the kick is that the boy, raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, has a blast along the way, and the crook warms to him, for example dressing him up in a Casper mask for his first Halloween. Their unusual friendship is by far the most compelling part of the movie; the subplot with the cops pursuing him — even though Clint plays the sheriff! — can’t compete. By definition, you start to buy into the friendship between Butch and Phillip and you don’t want it to be ruined by reality, in this case the fact that Butch is a wanted fugitive for robbery, murder, and kidnapping and that can only end a couple of bad ways.
Screenwriter John Lee Hancock went on to adapt MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL for Clint and then pretty much fully committed to being middlebrow, as the auteur responsible for the phrase “Academy Award Winner Sandra Bullock,” but his work here is perceptive and indelible. Clint stocks the movie with a tremendous supporting cast, including Laura Dern, Bradley Whitford, Bruce McGill, Keith Szarabajka, Ray McKinnon, and Mary Alice (not for nothing, a regular on A Different World.)
Clint’s performance as the lawman chasing down the outlaw isn’t his most essential in that respect, but as a director he truly shines, perfectly balancing the urgency of the plot with a leisurely pace, almost reminiscent of Terrence Malick and BADLANDS. He gets an unforgettable performance out of T.J. Lowther, the child actor playing Phillip. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first Eastwood film to spotlight small children in any significant way (TRUE CRIME is one of the only other examples.) The score by Lennie Niehaus is typically spare and effective. And the cinematography by Jack Green, doing a victory lap from his triumph on 1992’s gorgeous UNFORGIVEN, is a real highlight. Even divorced of content and story, this is a beautiful movie. Factoring back in the central relationship, it’s something special. A PERFECT WORLD is an important waystation along the highway of one of the most significant careers in American movies.