Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing. Today, I’ll be talking about Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World from 1993.
The First Viewing
I first saw the movie some time in 1994 when it came out on video. The allure for me at the time was Kevin Costner. For a brief period, Costner could do no wrong. Field of Dreams, JFK, The Untouchables, Bull Durham, Dances with Wolves… he had become a brand name who could be trusted to make good movies. Ironically, Clint Eastwood was a far bigger brand name- both as an actor and a director- but I didn’t realize it at the time. When I was 18 in 1994, I don’t think I’d seen a single movie starring or directed by Clint Eastwood. And that’s part of what made it an appealing re-watch candidate. I knew that this time, I’d be more likely to pick up on what Eastwood was putting down.
Somewhere along the line, I’d twisted up the facts and convinced myself that Elijah Wood was the kid. That’s incorrect. The kid was played by T.J. Lowther. As for quality, I vaguely remembered liking the movie but certainly not being blown away by it. The most memorable parts for me involved the kid’s Casper costume and a great quote from Eastwood’s character:
Chief Red Garnett: [interrupting a confrontation] How you take your steak, Sally?
Sally Gerber: Rare.
Chief Red Garnett: Well, I’ll just wipe its ass, run it through and you can tear off a slab. How’d that be?
I get my steaks medium rare but I can assure you that if I got them rare, I’d order them exactly that way. For whatever reason, over the last 17 years, my opinion of the film had degraded a bit. I had thought of it as something I liked then but probably wouldn’t enjoy now. Then I stumbled upon the Rotten Tomato score a few weeks ago. It’s at 77% with critics and 81% with audiences. That’s a pretty solid effort. So how did the movie hold up on a second watch? Did it gain anything? Did it lose anything?
The one thing that jumped out a lot more this time is that you could see what Director Eastwood and the screenwriters were trying to accomplish. Butch, the convict (Costner) and “Buzz”, the child, were set up as excellent foils for one another. Buzz had what Butch needed- a chance to be good to a kid in a way that his own father never was to him. This fact is amplified throughout the film with one character after another mistreating children, and morally conflicted Butch the convict stepping up to protect these kids. Contrarily, Buzz has led a very sheltered life, even for an eight year old. He’s raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. He’s not allowed to celebrate Halloween, ride roller coasters, eat cotton candy, or any of the other fun things that kids get to do. Butch enables him to live a life with the training wheels removed, albeit in a very twisted way.
Beneath all of this is the subtext of Eastwood- “Red”- as the protective father figure that Butch never had. It’s revealed mid-film that Butch had been sent to a youth delinquency center by none other than Red (Eastwood) to protect him from growing up under his own criminal father. Just as Butch (Costner) is morally conflicted, so is Red- torn between his desire to uphold the law and his growing desire to give Butch a fair chance. Aiding him in his discovery that Butch deserves a fair shot is Sally Gerber (Laura Dern), a criminologist along for the ride.
The film succeeds on a lot of levels. It does everything it sets out to do. It establishes Butch’s role as a nice guy crook while never letting the viewer loose from the specter of the danger inherent with an escaped convict. Every scene moves that narrative forward. It shows Buzz as being dirtied by his time with Butch but never wavering when it counts the most. It gives him some sort of Stockholm Syndrome twisted by the age discrepancy. Even in a smaller role than you’d expect, Eastwood’s “Red” has a plausible and effective character arc. As for the scenery, it works excellently as a period piece. It’s 1963 and you never doubt that it’s 1963, but it’s never really presented in a ham-fisted way (with the possible exception of a throwaway line about JFK coming to Dallas “soon”). Tacking on Casper the Friendly Ghost as the kid’s costume of choice was particularly sharp, putting him directly next to Butch- the friendly soon-to-be ghost.
Having said all of that, there was something missing. It’s awfully hard to pin down. For as well as everything was executed, the film lacked sizzle. It was enormously straight-forward. None of the characters were particularly empathetic. The closest it comes is Buzz, who isn’t really given enough dialogue to make you jump behind him. It comes down to very good filmmaking that seemed flat. My hunch is that the 77% on Rotten Tomatoes is more a function of critics being unable to find anything specifically wrong with A Perfect World than it is a function of critics genuinely loving the movie. Mind you, I consider it a fine effort first and foremost. I just don’t particularly see it as anything extraordinary and it felt like the parts were there to create something even better than it was.