****/**** Image B+ Sound A-
starring Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, Laura Dern, T.J. Lowther
screenplay by John Lee Hancock
directed by Clint Eastwood
by Walter Chaw Time and distance have conspired to replace Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven with A Perfect World in my mind as his best film and one of the best movies of the '90s. The two occur within a year of each other and mark, with In the Line of Fire between them, a renaissance of the Eastwood brand that had taken a few licks of late with embarrassments like Pink Cadillac, The Rookie, City Heat, Heartbreak Ridge, and on and on. While I was growing up, Eastwood was a Dirty Harry joke and the guy who acted with Orangutans. The first time I saw him in anything was in Bronco Billy, which, frankly, isn't the first time you want to see anyone in anything. What Unforgiven did for me was inspire a curiosity about Sergio Leone and, with that, a new reason to respect Eastwood's legacy; my first time through A Perfect World disturbed my notion of who Kevin Costner was (baseball player/cowboy) at the height of his power and sway in Hollywood, and I was distracted. Every time I've revisited A Perfect World since (and I've been compelled to revisit it at least once every few years), as Costner's star has faded and Eastwood's elder statesmanhood behind the camera has somehow dwarfed his iconhood in front of it, I feel the melancholy nostalgia of the film more and more. It's an American masterpiece. I make that distinction because it's distinctly American; and I mean it when I say that it's as fine an essay of the dying of an age as anything in Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy.
Butch (Costner) and Terry (Keith Szarabajka) break out of the local pen, steal a car, and kidnap little Philip Perry (T.J. Lowther) from the cozy clutches of a single mother (Jennifer Griffin) and the Jehovah's Witness religion preventing him from trick-or-treating. Philip's ostracization for his mother's beliefs is drawn beautifully, first with his friends' chaperone's incredulity, then later when his buddies toss water balloons at his house. It's terrible. And it's understandable and familiar. Butch and Terry's subsequent invasion, then, seems more a fulfillment of that earlier promise of violence: an insular nature invites intrusion, as it were. But even with that, Butch prevents Terry from raping Philip's mother--not necessarily out of goodness but rather, as we'll discover, because Butch is sensitized by his own history of violence. The trio, soon to be a duo, takes to the road, while the Rangers, led by Red Garnett (Eastwood) and forensic analyst Sally Gerber (Laura Dern), embark in a state-of-the-art Airstream to pursue. Red is reminded early on that President Kennedy is due to visit Dallas at the end of the month, placing A Perfect World in a very particular, and particularly loaded, period in our history, with the added complication that Red is likely responsible on some level for the safety of Jack and Jackie--eyewitness, footman to the fall of Camelot. It's a position Eastwood wants to cast himself in, evidently, and it's more effective in A Perfect World than in Unforgiven (or in In the Line of Fire, where he's a Secret Service agent who failed to protect Kennedy) because A Perfect World does nothing to mythologize the power of the lone hero. There are no heroes, merely these shades clothed in grey.
Butch and Philip "borrow" and beguile their way through the bucolic, sleepy Texas countryside, and without much fanfare or drama, Butch becomes Philip's lost father as Philip becomes Butch's lost childhood. Red once (ab)used the penal system to save Butch from his mean drunk of a pa; a few minutes near the end, during Costner and Eastwood's only screentime together, Butch wonders if he knows Red in a moment that speaks not just to Eastwood's archetypal familiarity, but also perhaps to some awareness of the way that all men are tied to the sins of their fathers. The message there, too, is that there's no way to make it good, no atonement sufficient. At a small-town clothier, Philip steals a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume, whose mask is Butch's companion as he lies dying in a field. It's the death of childhood emblemized there in the image of a dead child's phantom, winging Butch on his way while Philip finally finds closure in the loss of a father--a loss that he's complicit in, of course, and aren't we all? It wasn't then, nor has it ever been, a country for old men.
Eastwood handles the material with reserve and a strong dose of self-deprecation; Red's moments of grizzled weariness create nice harmony with Sally's perky intelligence. His job, all of hunches and intuition, is going the way of CSI and the cold calculation of lone assassins--spook sniper Bobby Lee (Bradley Whitford) now, Lee Harvey Oswald in about twenty days. A Perfect World is sensitive and heartbreaking; even moments over-scored by Lennie Niehaus's saccharine compositions feed into the overall feeling of a somewhat ironic Rockwellian idyll. It captures the world the way that Terrence Malick captures it in Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Tree of Life: a place where sublimes of passion and despair are both possible, shot through with golden light and pollen swimming in the air. Costner himself was never better as an unfixable man with as much good in him as there is sociopathy, both sides existing in absolute comfort and familiarity with one another. If Butch is a monster, it isn't because he kills people, but because he's incapable of controlling his impulse towards justice. In a different movie, he'd be the hardboiled detective enforcing a purer morality in a fallen universe; in this one, he simply doesn't fit into the new social framework. Butch as outcast is the better statement between he and Will Munny on how time transforms our heroes into villains--and A Perfect World speaks of loss in a series of tableaux ripped from the covers of all those fraying, yellowing editions of THE SATURDAY EVENING POST.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Released in June of 2012, Warner's Blu-ray edition of A Perfect World is a good but possibly revisionist rendering of a neo-classic I remember as a vibrant study of baby-blue skies and emerald-green grass. The oft-muted 2.40:1, 1080p transfer appears to reflect, with some admitted inconsistency, a new infusion of the dread teal-and-orange grading that will make the film look "modern" for only as long as it's fashionable. I'm giving this presentation the benefit of the doubt because it's been twenty years (to the day!) since I saw A Perfect World theatrically--my impressions were primarily shaped by annual viewings of the LaserDisc, an unreliable narrator of colour-timing given that it's, like DVD, an NTSC format--and because Eastwood allegedly approved it, although his aesthetic sensibility has of course undergone dramatic shifts since 1993. At any rate, in seeing a number of Blu-ray catalogue titles lean towards this same two-tone, undersaturated palette, including recent remasters from Warner and Fox like East of Eden and, most egregiously, Bus Stop, I've come to suspect some kind of agenda to contemporize the past, and I hope I'm not alone in not wanting any movie, let alone every movie, to look like Man of Steel. That said, in terms of fine detail, dynamic range, and grain structure, the image is more than adequate and indeed quite filmlike, while the audio, subdued by design, has a nice warmth in its 5.1 DTS-HD MA incarnation. This disc marks the first time I can remember Eastwood and Dern's campfire heart-to-heart not being overwhelmed by the sound of crickets, though they're still there, chirping away in the surrounds. The film's misleading yet alluring theatrical trailer, in SD, is the lone supplement.