Set in early November 1963—only weeks before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the end of America’s “age of innocence”—and released in November 1993, A Perfect World, together with Unforgiven (1992), is Eastwood’s plaintive meditation on violence and its consequences. In the performance of his career, Kevin Costner plays Butch Haynes, a hardened escaped convict who kidnaps a seven–year-old boy named Phillip while trying to elude the law. As they flee across the sunbaked Texas Panhandle with Eastwood’s crusty, aging police chief and his team of Texas Rangers in hot pursuit, the fugitive and the boy develop the only tender relationship either has known—Phillip finding in Butch the father he never had, and Butch finding in Phillip the child he might have been.
A Perfect World marks Eastwood’s astonishing repudiation of the roles for which he became famous. No more the poker-faced, macho stoicism of Dirty Harry, Josey Wales, or the Man with No Name, iconic characters who meted out justice with a squinted eye, a quick trigger, and a cold heart. Butch Haynes embodies a new kind of antihero, one made more human—and humane—by the emotional scars he carries with him. In A Perfect World, violent death causes pain and loss, even to those who perpetrate it.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights since 1980, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, p. 127.