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Unforgiven (1992) is rightly held up as the key turning point in Clint Eastwood’s remarkable career as both director and actor—the moment when he forever blurred the edges of his own iconic silhouette and fully embraced the cinematic shadows. That revisionist Western was a brilliant creative move, marking a change in tone that continues to resonate through his work, but the greater signal of intent to shake things up came a year later with A Perfect World (1993), an underrated masterpiece that has somehow slipped through the cracks.
On paper, the film’s all-star, manhunt, road-movie formula should have produced an instant box office hit—lead actor Kevin Costner was golden after Dances With Wolves and JFK, while co-star/director Eastwood had holstered a pair of Oscars (Best Picture & Best Director) for Unforgiven—but a determination to confound audience expectations ultimately delivered that rare thing: a deeply satisfying slow-burner that only improves with age. Clocking in at two hours and 18 minutes it’s a movie that takes its time, but not a second is wasted, as depths of character are given plenty of room to form and profound thematic threads are carefully drawn out and twisted back on themselves.
On the surface it’s the story of an escaped convict (Costner, terrific throughout) who picks up a young hostage (T.J. Lowther, way better than your average child actor) and takes off across the Texas panhandle, with Eastwood’s grouchy old-school lawman in lukewarm pursuit from the back of a tricked-out “command center” caravan. The movie’s sepia-tinted poster promised a sunset fusion of soft-core Americana and A-list familiarity, but Eastwood had other, more subversive plans in mind. The director’s genius here is to strike an almost impossible balance between the light and the very dark elements of a nuanced screenplay (by John Lee Hancock, who wrote and directed last year’s Saving Mr. Banks) so that we’re lured into a deep pool of reflection about violence, manhood, and destiny.
The ace up Eastwood’s sleeve is his monumental screen reputation as a Western/urban gunslinger. For iconic, pre-Unforgiven Clint—The Man with No Name and Dirty Harry Callahan—violence was casual, often comical, executed with a grin or a trademark grimace while chewing on a cheroot or a hotdog. His preferred fictional turf was rooted in allegory, caricature and archetype, but throughout the second half of his career, Eastwood has clearly relished the challenge of chipping away at his best-known big-screen creations, knocking them down piece by piece. He built up a screen mythology only to take it apart, and that act of deconstruction began in earnest with A Perfect World.
Whether he’s handling the broadest of themes or the smallest of details—for example, the scene where Costner and his young hostage make mustard sandwiches using a stick of gum as an improvised knife—Eastwood shows a master’s touch. He even finds a way to seamlessly introduce moments of light comedy, taking a cue from Trunkworthy favorite Sullivan’s Travels (1941) when the caravan unhitches from its tow-truck during a rather tame chase, shaking up the passengers before careening to a halt.
If a perfect movie is one which captures life’s imperfections and grey areas, overlooks the obvious, and surprises at every turn, then Eastwood gets pretty close here. Nothing in life is ever straightforward—especially when it comes to violence and the heroic myths nurtured in Hollywood about men with guns. Everything is nebulous, messy, unclear: the good, the bad and the ugly.
Life doesn’t supply neat answers and neither does A Perfect World. As Eastwood’s veteran lawman says at the end: “I don’t know nothing. Not one damn thing.” His ignorance is our Trunkworthy reward.