Butch Haynes never wanted to be a criminal, it just sort of happened somewhere along the way. He was, like so many characters have been in Clint Eastwood films since A Perfect World, a man poisoned by the sins of his own father, condemned to pass along whatever damaged deck he was dealt. What’s left, then, after the neglect and the abuse, is molded into a societal miscreant and shuffled into the prison system.
These wounds run like a river beneath the illusory idyllic surface of mid-century Texas in Eastwood’s A Perfect World, which turned 25 this month. It was the actor/director’s follow up to his Oscar winning masterpiece Unforgiven, and was subsequently lost in the overpowering cinematic moment that was Schindler’s List in the fall of 1993, right along with just about every other year-end release. But it carries a specific thematic weight when considering the Eastwood filmmaking trajectory and the characters he’s given us in the quarter century since.
There is an undeniable connective tissue between the characters trapped in Butch Haynes’ orbit – from young Phillip, to his pursuer, Sheriff Red Garnett (Eastwood) – and dozens of characters Eastwood has directed or played (or both) in subsequent years, including his upcoming domestic thriller The Mule. There may have been hints of these men in his previous films, but it doesn’t take much to recognize that the story of Butch Haynes and the father he never had was the unofficial beginning of a new movement in the Eastwood oeuvre.
Butch, played by Kevin Costner in a fitting, plainspoken role, is a prison escapee on the run with his loathsome bunkmate, Terry. The two men’s decision to kidnap young Phillip (T.J. Lowther, brilliant) is impulsive, but eventually the relationship between Butch and Phillip (or “Buzz”) becomes the heart and soul of an emotionally complicated road picture. Besides, had they gone with Terry’s decision to take Phillip’s mother along with them rather than Phillip, Terry would have likely raped and murdered her within hours. Butch is confident, however, he can protect the boy.
Once the picture settles into its second act – Butch and Phillip traveling in their time machine across Texas, Red and his ragtag crew of conflicting ideas and agendas in hot pursuit with that state-of-the-art Airstream trailer – the story becomes a subtextual unpacking of Butch’s troubled youth. We get information from Laura Dern’s Sally Gerber as she lays out his psyche profile to Red, who may have been partly to blame for Butch’s introduction into the prison system; there are the conversations Butch has with Phillip, about what kids should and shouldn’t be doing, and what they should and shouldn’t be subjected to along the way. We get the picture of the boy becoming a man without guidance, and the man trying to correct the sins leveled against him most of his life.
But the fight to correct those sins and the life left in their wake is no match for fate, and for instinct, two factors that snap A Perfect World from its dream state of paternal adventure back into the cruel, cold reality of killers and prisoners and inherent violence.
Only in those final moments is the violence seen, heard, and felt. The killings early on are handled off screen, with a certain level of disgust from both Costner and Eastwood. These aren’t the good moments, not for anyone involved, and it’s best to keep Phillip’s head clear of such senseless violence as long as possible. In the end, however, when the farmer is abusing his son in plain sight, violence erupts. It cannot stay hidden, not anymore, and the adventure has reached its unavoidable conclusion. Nothing has been fixed, nothing changes, and the sins of the father carry through.
Butch had tried to show Phillip a different world from the sheltered one he’d known thus far, under the strict dogma of Jehovah’s Witness. He wound up showing him the dark realities that cause young boys to have to become men too early. After A Perfect World, Clint Eastwood began telling more of these stories, about bad dads and their pissed off kids. His diamond thief Luther Whitney in Absolute Power is estranged from his daughter, much like reporter Steve Everett in 1999’s True Crime. In Mystic River, it’s Sean Penn’s reformed thug father who is punished for his past; in Million Dollar Baby, it is Eastwood trying to repair the relationships in his own life with the help of his young boxing protege.
The Mule is clearly going all in on the exploration of a father who lets his work and his own selfish nature destroy his family, and it looks like some of Eastwood’s best work in a decade. Perhaps this will bring his exploration full circle, even finding some cinematic closure to an idea he has been poking and prodding for nearly half of his professional life.