Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Perfect World: Eastwood's Lost Masterpiece

Clint Eastwood directed the incredibly underrated film A Perfect World in 1993, and marked a turning point in the career of it's star, Kevin Costner. Costner had just accomplished the highest point of his professional life, having just directed and starred in the multiple Oscar winning Dances With Wolves.

A Perfect World opens with a jailbreak, and the two prisoners (including Costner) break into a neighborhood home and wind up taking a young boy hostage. The men go on the run, stealing cars and robbing to keep on moving through the Texas countryside. Meanwhile, Texas Ranger (Eastwood) and governor appointed criminologist (Laura Dern) remain hot on their trail, zooming along the backroads in a state of the art (for the time) Airstream trailer. The film takes place in the weeks leading up to the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas. This distinct point in history is significant as Eastwood uses the post-fifties innocence as a backdrop for horrific events and complicated emotions.

Much of the story focuses on the relationship between the little boy and the criminal on the lamb. Costner is absolutely mesmerizing in the role of the criminal on the run, who is a combination of an injured child and a brutal man whom the audience cannot understand. This shift back and forth is subtle, nuanced, and multi-layered. Critics have spent the better part of the last two decades ridiculing Costner, sometimes with good reason (Firefly, Message In A Bottle).

However, it is his Oscar-worthy performance in A Perfect World that must be seen in order to truly ascertain his abilities as an actor. While being outmatched in roles that require him to take on accents (Robin Hood) or sci-fi (The Postman, Waterworld), Costner excels in midwestern, Gary Cooper-type roles (Field of Dreams, The Untouchables, Silverado). What makes A Perfect World so successful is that Costner uses that heartland association to his advantage, complicating what could have been a straightforward, cliched portrayal of a man on the edge into a complex and unsettleing performance that takes the viewer into uncomfortable territories.

It is these uncomforable positions that most likely kept audiences away at the time. Eastwood masterfully directs the story, paced for maximum impact. Do yourself a favor and watch it. It might cause you to re-evaluate the entire career of Costner, including JFK and The War.