Star Kevin Costner and director Clint Eastwood deliver lean, finely chiseled work in "A Perfect World," a somber, subtly nuanced study of an escaped con's complex relationship with an abducted boy that carries a bit too much narrative flab for its own good. Dazzling marquee combination of leading male stars from two generations will provide a hefty initial draw, but audiences and critics are likely to be divided between those moved by the unusual surrogate father-son bonding and viewers put off by the whole subject of child kidnapping. Ultimate B.O. looks to be solid but less than smash.

Star Kevin Costner and director Clint Eastwood deliver lean, finely chiseled work in “A Perfect World,” a somber, subtly nuanced study of an escaped con’s complex relationship with an abducted boy that carries a bit too much narrative flab for its own good. Dazzling marquee combination of leading male stars from two generations will provide a hefty initial draw, but audiences and critics are likely to be divided between those moved by the unusual surrogate father-son bonding and viewers put off by the whole subject of child kidnapping. Ultimate B.O. looks to be solid but less than smash.

In his directorial follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Unforgiven,” Eastwood once again touches upon certain subjects he has been drawn to in the past, such as ruptured families, bereft children, loner outlaws pushed to the brink, and working people in rural America. This is a disturbing, intimate, noirish road movie paradoxically lensed in widescreen across the vast, sunbaked Texas landscape, its impact made through oblique dialogue and the finesse of performance rather than by broad action and suspense.

Framed by haunting images of its sweaty protagonist lying in the grass as money stirred up by helicopter blades wafts over him, John Lee Hancock’s story centers on Butch Haynes (Costner), a lifelong loser toughened up by many years in the pen. With a nod to “Escape From Alcatraz,” Butch and his nasty partner Terry (Keith Szarabajka) break out of the joint on Halloween night in 1963, commandeer a car and, after briefly terrorizing a family, make off with 7 -year-old Phillip Perry (T.J. Lowther) as a hostage.

Quickly taking up the chase is Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Eastwood), a seasoned, instinctive pro who gets saddled with an unwanted contingent of man hunters, including Laura Dern’s state criminologist and Bradley Whitford’s odious sharpshooter. Faintly amusing touch has the law gang traveling in a silver mobile trailer loaded with high-tech gizmos with which they hope to track Butch’s movements.

Remainder of the picture cross-cuts between the hunters and the prey, with heavy emphasis on the latter. Even so, it was not heavy enough, as the scenes among the cops prove uniquely uneventful impediments to forward progress.

After a nervous gas station interlude in which Butch disposes of the menacing Terry, little Phillip begins admiring his abductor for his cool, manly, take-charge ways and his friendly, liberating words of encouragement, things he never hears from his severe, Jehovah’s Witness mom.

Phillip can hardly help but begin to see in Butch the father he doesn’t have. Fortunately, the sympathetic Butch doesn’t have any windy speeches explaining his own unlucky childhood. The most he says is, “I ain’t a good man. I ain’t the worst neither. Just a breed apart.”

Film is strongest in building this erratic, potent and unusually complicated link between man and boy. Resulting emotions pull on the viewer in diverse, disturbing and increasingly involving ways, justifying the protracted finale in which the two play out their relationship under the scrutiny of a phalanx of armed authorities.

Film’s major surprise is Costner’s performance, which is undoubtedly the best of his career to date. Sporting short hair, shades and a perpetual cigarette, the actor trades in taciturnity here for major dividends, as the slow rate at which his character is revealed produces mounting interest, much in the fashion of some of Eastwood’s slow-burn characterizations in the past. Costner skillfully indicates the glimmerings of good instincts buried somewhere deep in Butch that have rarely, if ever, been articulated or brought to the surface.

As the kid, who spends the latter-going running around in a Casper the Friendly Ghost suit, T.J. Lowther is exceptionally good. Engaging company despite adverse circumstances, he achingly conveys the contradictory feelings his experience with Butch summons up.

For once, Eastwood the director has served other actors significantly better than he serves himself. His tough cop role resembles many others he’s played before, but this time remains a strictly one-dimensional supporting figure who doesn’t really do much. Similarly, Dern’s initially adversarial smarty-pants shows the potential to flower into one of Eastwood’s periodic female sparring partners whom he grows to respect, but role never goes beyond the annoyingly sketchy.

Director brings strong tact and intelligence to the human story, and elaborates it with many grace notes. A climactic scene involving Butch, the kid and a black sharecropper family is brilliantly staged for maximum dread, ambiguous intent and key, but subtle, revelation of Butch’s personality.

Pic would have benefited from at least 20 minutes of tightening, nearly all in the police scenes. Fact that tale is set three weeks before JFK’s fateful trip to Dallas is fortunately not belabored, but will be noted in light of Eastwood’s most recent outing in “In the Line of Fire.”

Behind-the-scenes contributions are strong, notably Henry Bumstead’s evocative but unstressed period production design, Jack N. Green’s sensitive but unshowy lensing and Lennie Niehaus’ resourceful score. Eye-catching supporting turns are delivered by Wayne Dehart as the threatened farmhand and Linda Hart as a lustful waitress.

A Perfect World

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Malpaso production. Produced by Mark Johnson, David Valdes. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay, John Lee Hancock.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor; Panavision widescreen), Jack N. Green; editors, Joel Cox, Ron Spang; music, Lennie Niehaus; production design, Henry Bumstead; art direction, Jack Taylor Jr.; set design, Charlie Vassar, Antoinette Gordon; set decoration, Alan Hicks; costume design, Erica Edell Phillips; sound (Dolby), Jeff Wexler; assistant director, L. Dean Jones; casting, Phyllis Huffman, Liz Keigley (Texas). Reviewed at Warner Bros. screening room, Burbank, Nov. 16, 1993. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time:137 MIN.

With

Butch Haynes ... Kevin Costner Red Garnett ... Clint Eastwood Sally Gerber ... Laura Dern Phillip Perry ... T.J. Lowther Terry Pugh ... Keith Szarabajka Tom Adler ... Leo Burmester Dick Suttle ... Paul Hewitt Bobby Lee ... Bradley Whitford Bradley ... Ray McKinnon Gladys Perry ... Jennifer Griffin Mack ...Wayne Dehart Eileen ... Linda Hart
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