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
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
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