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‘A Perfect World’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 24, 1993


Clint Eastwood
Kevin Costner;
Clint Eastwood;
Laura Dern;
TJ Lowther;
Keith Szarabajka
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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In "A Perfect World," Clint Eastwood plays a legendary Texas Ranger named Red Garnett, but it's hard to tell just how the character came by that legendary status. The year is 1963, and when Red hears that a career criminal named Butch Haynes (Kevin Costner) has busted out of prison and taken a small boy hostage, he acts like he's been told that a kitty is stuck in a tree. Standing tall and lean in his ranger's uniform and white cowboy hat, he looks capable but sleepy, as if he plans to hop right on the case just as soon as he wakes up from his nap.

Actually, not much happens after Red begins his search either, and for a while the unhurried, devil-may-care pace that Eastwood has given to his material is disorienting. For a movie about a cop chasing an escaped prisoner, it seems curiously languid, almost meditative. Watching it, you think, where's the action, the crashing cars, the gunplay and the glib one-liners?

In other words, where is the Clint Eastwood we know?

The answer is "Not here, so get used to it." And strangely enough, we do. Directed by Eastwood from a script by John Lee Hancock, "A Perfect World" is one of the Academy Award-winning actor-director's most unexpected, most satisfying films. This isn't the first time that Eastwood has turned the tables on our expectations, but he's never been this bold in the past, or this sure of himself.

I have no idea how audiences will react to this intimate, unassuming, gently funny character study. Most of the film is spent in the car with the convict and his hostage, Phillip (played with remarkable restraint by T.J. Lowther). For the boy, who is too young to know what's really going on, the kidnapping quickly becomes the adventure of a lifetime. Raised a Jehovah's Witness, Phillip has been denied many of the common pleasures of being a child -- like being able to dress up for Halloween. And Haynes is clever enough to turn their exploits together into a game of cops and robbers, with fake names and all.

As Haynes and his new partner poke around committing petty crimes and trying to avoid police roadblocks, they become fast friends. And why not? Like a father who's only around on weekends, Haynes lets the kid do all the things his mother usually won't allow. For example, at one stop Phillip finds a Halloween costume -- it's a Casper the Friendly Ghost suit -- and while Haynes is being chased by the cops outside, he's inside the store slipping the costume under his shirt.

The scenes between Haynes and his new pal are the film's best; in fact, they may be the best scenes Eastwood has ever put on film. The more time Haynes spends with Phillip, the more he sees himself in the young boy's eyes. A criminal since boyhood, Haynes grew up in a whorehouse under the intermittent supervision of a brutal, alcoholic father. And because he feels that he was cheated out of his own childhood, Haynes's determination to show Phillip a good time takes on a special urgency.

This isn't a spectacular role for Costner, but he does spectacular things with it. As Haynes, he doesn't wear his criminality on his sleeve. Instead, he underplays the character's violence with such cunning skill that he becomes dangerously likable. When Phillip tells Haynes that he's never ridden on a roller coaster, the escaped con ties him to the roof of their stolen station wagon and gives the ecstatic boy -- who's still wearing his Casper suit -- a ride to remember.

Meanwhile, after commandering a mobile headquarters designed for the governor, Red and his crew -- which includes a deputy (Leo Burmester), an FBI man (Bradley Whitford) and a criminologist named Sally (Laura Dern) -- take to the highway in search of their prey. But from all the success they have, they might as well be out on a joy ride themselves.

In most movies of this sort, the filmmakers try to create an atmosphere of apprehension, but not here. In fact, Eastwood appears to take a certain amount of pleasure in deflating the tension. As the movie builds to a climax, he keeps tossing in lazy bits of comedy. As an actor, he does much the same thing. Though he has a few sharp, comic exchanges with Dern (who does a serviceable job with an impossible role), Eastwood seems to spend most of his screen time goofing on his character and playing his squint-eyed prowess for laughs.

We expect a final faceoff between these two screen icons, but when the time comes for the criminal and the cop to stand toe-to-toe, Eastwood is so slow to come to his mark that the confrontation is a non-event. Yet almost despite itself, the scene works. "A Perfect World" may not be the Clint Eastwood-Kevin Costner movie that we expected, and on some level, it may even seem perverse. But maybe that's what big star power is really about.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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