To be perfectly frank, our first group discussion was…shall we say, less than successful. Nevertheless, with nary any time and scarcely any sense of focus, we plunged forth into the void, discussing our various films (which included A Fistful of Dollars, Bronco Billy and my choice, A Perfect World). Unfortunately, all we noticed were the similarities and differences between them, and virtually no comparison was made to the kinds of Western heroes we looked at in class. However, I am willing to try to make some connections. In Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World (1993), the question of the Western hero in the 1963 rural Texas backroads setting is an interesting one. On the one hand, you have Eastwood himself as the tough-as-nails yet haunted Texas Ranger Red Garnett. On the other, there is something of a very likable “antihero” in the person of deeply emotionally scarred prison escapee Robert ‘Butch’ Haynes (Kevin Costner) who kidnaps an 8-year-old boy from a Jehovah’s Witness household in early morning hours and, with a nefarious accomplice who is soon dispatched with, hits the road on the lam from “justice.” So then we have two “heroes” to look at in comparison and contrast to the kinds of John Wayne characters that populated such earlier films as Stagecoach, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, among others. Dispensing with the obvious issues of mise-en-scene in comparison between the classic Western vs. a more modernized incarnation – i.e. cars and Airstreams vs. horseback, frozen food vs. freshly caught food – let’s look at others instead.
Hot on the trail of Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), A Perfect World would seem above all to be hitting on the notion of the “psychological Western,” which was brought up in class. Among the ways in which the film is deeper, shall we say, more “progressive” than the average Western, is its inclusion of a female criminologist (Laura Dern). Her insights into Butch’s past, as well as a scene in which she reads Red’s involvement in the case to a T, suggest a level of intelligence going on here that ventures beyond brute strength and thus beyond the basic limitations of the Westerns of long ago. ‘Butch’ is not the only one haunted by his past, for so is Red. At a younger age, he swayed a Judge to send ‘Butch’ (unfairly) to a juvenile prison for stealing a car in order to “save” him from whatever fate would’ve beset him at home. However, he’s never felt quite right about it, and after the tragic circumstances of the film’s climax, when the criminologist goes for a heart-to-heart with Red, he admits, “I don’t know nothin’. Not one damn thing.” This suggests a serious level of doubt and lack of confidence Red was not exhibiting at the beginning of the film, and certainly one which is not typical of your average classic Western hero.
One thing I did notice in contrast between the three films our group watched was the notion of family or lack thereof. If A Fistful of Dollars saw Eastwood as a classic lone gunslinger in an untamed land, Bronco Billy went the opposite direction with, as I understand it, its notions of a surrogate family in the form of Wild West Show performers. That brings me to me and in A Perfect World, Eastwood lets us sympathize with ‘Butch’ in much the same way that Phillip, the young hostage, and the criminologist (Dern) do – by seeing he’s not a bad man per say, but one driven at least in part by, as Roger Ebert’s rave review puts it, “old, deep wounds.” The bond that forms between Phillip and ‘Butch’ is that of father and son, and throughout their blood-stained odyssey, they see instances of kindness and decency and of cruelty to children on various plains, and that, to one degree or another, informs their behavior. ‘Butch’ was scarred as a child by an abusive father and has, in a sense, very much been trying to heal those wounds ever since.
Eastwood’s film manages to expertly mix the iconography of the Western with the structures of a manhunt (ala’ The Hitch-Hiker, among others), a road movie and a police procedural, with some good old-fashioned sentimentality thrown in for good measure. Name me a John Wayne film that has that kind of nerve. Okay, True Grit comes close – without the depth.