REVIEW / Soft men with hard centres: Adam Mars-Jones finds Clint Eastwood's new buddy-buddy movie, A Perfect World, both sentimental and sour

We don't exactly associate Clint Eastwood with pimping for tears, either as actor or director, but nothing brings out American sentimentality like a story about fathers and sons, and A Perfect World certainly sets out to wet a few cheeks. The strange thing about it is that it has all the characteristics of the heart-warming film except the warmth. Somehow that got left out. In one sequence, a father is ordered at gunpoint to tell his son he loves him ('Say it like you mean it'). That's pretty much the emotional dynamic of A Perfect World. We feel things not because we want to, but because a man with a gun tells us it will be much better for us if we do.

Kevin Costner plays a harder character than is usual for him, a criminal called Butch. He and another jailbird break out of what seems to be a minimum- or zero-security institution, knotting sheets in that special movie way which means you can climb down them and then just give a tug and have them fall into your hands. In some early sequences Eastwood seems to be directing Costner almost as a younger version of himself: the laconic brutality with which Costner keeps his fellow convict in line was once very much an Eastwood trademark. But it turns out that brutalised Butch has a soft spot for kids, in fact he pretty much is a soft spot for kids. And when the escaped convicts take an eight-year-old boy as a hostage, bonding is imminent.

T J Lowther is well cast as the boy Philip. He has a semi-miserable runny nose look, but he is perfectly wholesome in his way. His mouth goes lopsided when he tells a lie, but he shows no behavioural problems that couldn't be cured by manly hugs and regular applications of candyfloss (one of a long list of legitimate pleasures denied him by his Jehovah's Witness mother). What luck that of all the eight-year-olds in America Butch managed to snatch this diamond in the rough]

Clint Eastwood, meanwhile, plays a Texas Ranger named Red, tough enough in his own way, but in Texas terms pretty much a New Man. Sure, he tells Sally (Laura Dern), the woman criminologist he's saddled with on this assignment, that what he likes best in her gender is a firm backside and a good sense of humour, but he really cares about handling the case right and he is not about to ignore her

contribution.

There's some rather feeble comedy in this strand of the film. The moment Red is lent a special hi-tech trailer to use for the investigation, with strict instructions to look after it ('Not a scratch, you hear me'), we know it's going to be belly-up in the bushes in a matter of minutes.

The year is 1963, as we're informed rather clangingly by a reference to the President's impending visit to Dallas. There seems no good reason for this, unless screenwriter John Lee Hancock is trying to convey that America is about to become, with the killing of a father figure, one big dysfunctional family. The implacable workings of hindsight ensure that nobody expresses a negative opinion of Kennedy, though it was precisely his intense unpopularity in Texas that made the Dallas visit necessary.

A Perfect World borrows something of the structure of Thelma and Louise with an authority figure tracking wrongdoers but gradually becoming sympathetic to their actions, so that by the time he actually catches up with them, at the end of the film, he's more or less on their side. Red is a sort of symbolic father to Butch already, having tried with a harshness that didn't work to straighten him out at an earlier stage of delinquency. The film is a buddy-buddy road movie, in fact a double buddy-buddy road movie, since while Butch and Philip are getting close, Red and Sally are establishing their own rapport.

It's about as likely that this Texas Ranger would chum up with this improbable proto-feminist as that Red would hang a photo of Martin Luther King on the wall of his office. But the sexual politics of A Perfect World are bizarrely twisted in their own right, as well as being wrong for the period. The film shows a world in which fathers may represent absence or brutality, but also love, while mothers kill joy. Butch and Philip hitch a ride with a family that seems perfectly well adjusted, until the mother angrily barracks the children for spilling their soda pop ('So much for the new car smell'). This is traumatising, you understand, while being kidnapped by a killer is a rite of passage for Philip. He even gets to drive a car. Sometimes the film seems to be saying that women should enter the work-place where they belong, and leave childcare to the men, who know how to show kids a good time. Butch and Philip may only have a sliced loaf and a jar of mustard for food, but hell, in the right company, a mustard sandwich is as good as a feast.

Butch's suitability as a role model is established largely by making his fellow convict into a monster. The two of them kill a man on their way out of jail and, though we aren't given the details, guilt seems to accrue exclusively to nasty Terry Pugh (still, Butch spends the dead man's money). To forestall any suspicion that the intimacy between a kidnapper and an eight-year-old boy could have a sexual tinge, nasty Terry Pugh molests Philip while Butch is briefly absent. This makes possible a strange scene in which Butch inspects the child's genitals in his turn, but in a fatherly, healing way, reassuring Philip about their adequacy ('Good size for a boy your age').

Clint Eastwood isn't usually a fussy director, and he brings off a nicely enigmatic opening shot, which only clicks into place and makes sense at the end of the film. But he badly misjudges the whole last section, an interminable showdown that has a lot to do with the excessiveness of the film's length (it runs 138 minutes). He tries to milk emotions that he hasn't begun to

set up.

It has to be conceded that A Perfect World is a highly unusual film. It's tone is pretty much unique, but then why would anyone set out to make a film that is sentimental without being sweet, that manages to be bleak and mawkish at the same time? The film is a mustard sandwich on white bread, bland in texture but still leaving a harsh taste in the mouth.

A Perfect World opens on Friday; see tomorrow's listings for details

(Photographs omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers