A Perfect World (1993) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, language, and sexuality
Running Time: 138 min.

Cast: Kevin Costner, T.J. Lowther, Clint Eastwood, Laura Dern, Keith Szarabajka, Leo Burmester, Paul Hewitt, Bradley Whitford, Ray McKinnon, Jennifer Griffin
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: John Lee Hancock
Review published November 2, 2004

I dig Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, Space Cowboys), and I normally like Kevin Costner (Bull Durham, The Untouchables), so this pairing of the two would seem like a can't-miss proposition.  It misses. It's a shame because there are many things going for A Perfect World that almost make it worth watching, with solid acting, nice direction, and an interesting, complex story -- just the kind of thing Eastwood excels at directing.  What should be affirming ends up being a bit too crass and distasteful to sit through without squirming uncomfortably, and at almost 2.5 hours, about 45 minutes of trimming, especially of the many needless scenes, would have also done a world of good for the final result. 

Set in 1963 Texas, Costner plays a convict who springs out of prison with his amoral cellmate, and with the cops hot on their trail, the two end up taking a seven year old boy hostage for a little bit of insurance as they try to make their getaway.  Eastwood leads the Texas Rangers who are trying to nail the duo before they can leave the country, while a new criminologist tags along to assist. 

I think the biggest problem that I have with A Perfect World comes from seeing such disgusting behavior try to pass off as cute in this film about a criminal who bonds with a young boy, so your mileage will vary as to how much it offends you.  Some may not be offended at all, but as for me, I found it troublesome.

First, boys playing with real guns, and being taught how to threaten other people with it isn't a cute bonding moment, it's abuse.  He holds the gun about three or four times, and each time, he is forced to aim it directly at someone.  Granted, the man who puts the gun in the childís hands is not a good man per se, but it seems obvious that the boy will end up having to use the gun at some point, since he has learned all about how to fire a weapon for reasons that would make little sense otherwise.  Taking my own moral objections out of the equation, it's too much of a tell, and just bad storytelling.

Second, the boy is subject to too much traumatic stimuli along the way, from seeing his family nearly killed to his mother almost raped to murder to armed robbery to torture.  The boy ends up committing robbery himself, which Eastwood tries to pass off as cute, because the clerk isn't too friendly, and apparently deserves to be threatened with a gun.  There is even a scene where the young boy is cajoled into showing his penis to the kidnapper, and it's supposed to be a wonderful moment for the boy that his kidnapper is impressed by its size.  Was this a necessary scene??  (Never mind the two or three minutes it takes for the boy to take a leak -- longer than the intentionally overlong pee scenes in Austin Powers and A League of Their Own combined.) 

Third, speaking of Clint, is it necessary for Eastwood to put in an attempted rape or brutal violence toward a woman in every movie he directs?  Sudden Impact, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Mystic River, Absolute Power, The Gauntlet, Unforgiven, and Pale Rider are just a few I can name off the top of my head.  A Perfect World has not just one such scene, and not two, but three.  The boyís mom, the boy, and an uncomfortable, and completely needless scene of sexual pressure a fellow cop imposes on Laura Dern (Citizen Ruth, Jurassic Park).  Címon Clint, canít you find another device to show someone is a bad guy?

Fourth, the kidnapper intervenes in the child's religious beliefs to indoctrinate him in his own twisted values.  Sure, being a Jehovah's Witness means the boy doesn't celebrate holidays like Halloween or Christmas, or even birthdays.  However, nothing precludes him from eating cotton candy or riding a roller coaster, like the film suggests.  What's worse is that this murdering, looting criminal, who teaches the boy how to use a gun and that crime is fine if the circumstances are right is in any position to question someone else's moral or religious lifestyle, much less try to corrupt an impressionable child, AND THEN make the mother promise to break her heartfelt religious vows or she won't get her only son back.  It's just despicably wrong.

That this movie earned a PG-13 nomination is the biggest mystery among a film full of them, which leads me to feel like I'm making a big deal over nothing.  Am I being too moralistic here?  I have to speak the truth -- the subject matter disturbed me to the point where I just can't in good conscience recommend this movie.  Never mind the fact that it's overlong with pointless scenes, and spends far too much time in the Texas Ranger subplot that does nothing to push forward the main themes of the story, while introducing several other elements that should have been excised altogether.

A Perfect World has its moments, but the parts that irked me were just too strong for me to forgive.  There is an audience out there who enjoys this sort of film, as it gets some modestly good reviews, but I can't be a part of that crowd.  Even taking my personal grievances out to look at it at it objectively, Costner just doesn't work in the misunderstood bad guy role, and the turgid end of the film is grossly heavy-handed to the detriment of the overall story.  Underneath it all, there's a fine and complex tale yearning to get out, but it would take a pair of scissors and a shovel to trim this down to adequate story length and scoop out all of the manure that was heaped on it to make it seem more arduous an adventure than it ever needed to be.  Affecting, but not always in the right ways.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2004 Vince Leo