Freedom Trap

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Clint Eastwood as Chief Red Garnett in A Perfect World

That Clint Eastwood is the most successful director of the past 20 years isn’t really up for debate. Other filmmakers may have made more money or experienced more blinding bursts of fame, but none has been more consistently revered—at the box office, by awards-show juries, in critics’ notebooks—than the former mayor of Carmel, Calif. Who else would have dared to breathe new life into a moribund genre (Unforgiven), tell a World War II story from the viewpoint of the Japanese (Letters from Iwo Jima), and make big-budget blockbusters about child abuse (Mystic River) and euthanasia (Million Dollar Baby)?

Yet for all Eastwood’s designs on social and political significance, his best movie may be one of his smallest, most personal and least commercially successful: 1993’s A Perfect World. That film, along with several other Eastwood movies, has been re-released on DVD in honor of the director’s 80th birthday.

A Perfect World follows two men on a chase through the Texas panhandle in the early 1960s. The first, Butch Haynes, is an escaped convict on the run. The second is Chief Red Garnett, the hard-nosed Texas Ranger charged with catching him. Haynes, who kidnaps an 8-year-old boy at the beginning of the film, is played with delicious rebel amorality by Kevin Costner. Garnett is played by Eastwood, who plays him like, well, Eastwood: grizzled, grouchy, squinting.

The film was written by Texan John Lee Hancock (who also wrote last year’s football heart-warmer The Blind Side), and in addition to being perhaps the most overlooked of Eastwood’s films, A Perfect World is also one of the great unsung Texas movies of the last two decades. It’s got everything a great Texas movie needs: seductive criminals, no-nonsense lawmen, guns, long journeys and beautiful, wide-open, wind-worn landscapes that lend themselves to the wild grasps for freedom that only people in the middle of nowhere can hope for.

Freedom is at the center of A Perfect World, more so than the struggle between lawlessness and civilization or even the exquisitely drawn friendship that develops between Butch and his boy hostage, Buzz. Hancock, Eastwood and Costner take a character that could have easily become a cautionary tale about the dangers of criminal living and turn him into a symbol of unbridled American freedom. Not happiness, freedom—the only true American birthright. As Butch puts it to Buzz, who has already spent his life as a kind of hostage to an ultra-religious mother, “You have a goddamn, red-white-and-blue, American right to a ride on a roller coaster.” After which he straps the kid to the roof of his car and drives him down the highway at full speed, the newly liberated Buzz hooting and hollering as he goes.

Like countless Americans before him, Butch seeks freedom from tradition, law and, most importantly, family. When Butch tells Buzz the car they’ve stolen is a time machine, he’s speaking metaphorically, but just barely: He knows that in America, a good car and a long road can go a long way toward shaking a man free from his past.

Of course, no man can ever free himself entirely from the scars of his own mythology. So when Butch finally snaps under the pressure of his stored-up resentments, his seductive, lawless charm descends into menace. Complete liberation is one step removed from toxic narcissism. And you never know what a man with a gun and a burning need to escape is capable of.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.