"Violence is something I've tried to move away from." - Eastwood
Most of Clint Eastwood's early films were reactionary fantasies. Later in his career he actively set out to repudiate the messages of these films. And so from the late 1980s onwards he'd specialise in flicks which meditate upon violence, critique machismo, flawed father figures and supposedly put forth "anti violence" messages, though in most cases ("Unforgiven", "Gran Torino" etc) what these films do and pretend to do are completely at odds. Still, Eastwood's films during the second half of his career sometimes went interesting places, the best examples of which are probably "White Hunter, Black Heart" and "A Perfect World".
Set in 1963, the year President JFK was assassinated, "A Perfect World" stars Kevin Costner as an escaped convict who kidnaps a seven year old boy, uses the kid as a hostage, and flees cross-country in a stolen car. Costner is pursued by a team of Texas Rangers, led by Eastwood. While the film sports all the totems of the road/pursuit/Texan/cat-and-mouse movie – lots of evocative shots of rural Texas, trigger happy law enforcement officers, car chases, an episodic plot etc – Eastwood's film functions more as a meditation on the genre; think "Sugarland Express" or "Thelma and Louise" as written by a bleeding heart criminal psychologist. And so rather than a cat-and-mouse game, the film's law enforcement officials are mostly inept, are given no generic action set pieces and spend the film lethargically pontificating and/or dwelling on their target's psychology, history and motivations. Fairly radical, the film then explicitly blames Eastwood's character for causing Costner's descent into criminality. It is rare for a film to reject essentialism, but "World" does this, portraying Costner as a victim of social exclusion and social/structural forces, all of which were exasperated when a hard-lined cop (Eastwood, literally playing an elderly, introspective Dirty Harry) unnecessarily sentenced Coaster to prison as a kid, a place where he was "reformed" into a super-criminal. The message: Dirty Harry causes crime, the social/state creates the personal, and authoritarian, right-wing justice has long term negative effects, even if they occasionally have short term gains.
The film's title - "A Perfect World" - however, injects an air of ambiguity. Wild West justice has horrible ripples, the film says, but we're positioned to side with Costner when he murders a paedophile. Elsewhere Eastwood challenges us with a daring, unconventional, prolonged last act sequence in which the once lovable Costner abuses a family (a black family no less; a middle finger to liberals). The film also features an interesting, if woefully underused character played by Laura Dern. She's a criminal psychologist, the effeminate, touchy-feely foil to the ageing Eastwood, a woman who challenges Dirty Harry's conceptions of law and crime prevention.
The film features a woefully overextend final act, too much false moments and forced pathos, is 30 minutes too long and contains a predictable/sappy ending in which Costner is gunned down, but nevertheless remains one of Eastwood's best. T. J. Lowther, who plays the kid Costner kidnaps, is also given a good "coming of age" arc. His performance is powerfully raw at times.
It's "World's" plot, though, which makes it stand out. At its core it pits "Right realism", which focuses on control, containment and punishment, against the soft rehabilitation of "Left realism". Each side of the spectrum criticises the other, one painted as too hard-nosed and futile, the other too impractical, sympathetic and obsessed with causes. In the 1980s, academics ("Crime and Human Nature" by Wilson and Herrnstein) began to put forth more nuanced explanations of crime, considering biological, social and genetic factors, whilst in the 90s some studies (Murray's "Bell Curve") began to revert to Darwinist connotations, by attributing crime to low impulse control, low intelligence, "poor socialisation", genes and "excessive extroversion". Political scientist Charles Murray would go so far as to blame the "generous revolution" of the welfare state for crime. In the 80s, Right realists began to turn to theorists like Ron Clarke, who asserted that Rational Choice Theory "proves" that individuals have free will and the power of reason and should therefore be punished harshly. Left realists counter this and take a more existential position, turning to neuroscience to question the very nature of free will, autonomy and consciousness. In the 21st century, studies began officially debunking links between IQ and crime whilst right realists were accused of focusing on petty street crime whilst ignoring larger, corporate/state crimes, which are demonstrably more costly/harmful. The Right's zero tolerance policy began to once again be accused of leading to discrimination and racism, and several studies were published which debunked the long-standing notion that "tough" policies reversed rising crime rates during the 1970s-90s.
Existing outside the left/right divide you then have anarchists who typically romanticise working class criminals. Left realists argue working class criminals mostly victimise other working class people; not the rich. The right thinks they're both insane. Marxist scientists ignore all groups from an aloof perch. For them, all crime is a matter of economics. Today numerous studies (Lea and Young etc) corroborate the seemingly obvious; aside from crimes of passion, crime is overwhelmingly due to deprivation and (economic) marginalisation. Some counter this: poverty was high in the 1930's but crime low (and increases with rises in living standards). Enter relativity. Professor W.G. Runcimans starts using the concept of relative deprivation to explain the paradox. For him, an ideology of individualism, self interest at the expense of others and individual rights cause crime and social disintegration (undermining values of mutual support and selflessness). Right realists accuse this of sounding like nutty commie perversions. And on and on the dance goes. Eastwood is rare in that he has existed on both extremes of the pendulum.
8/10 – See Kloves' "Flesh and Bone". Worth one viewing.