A Perfect World

As a psychotherapist I see everyday how difficult it is for people to talk to each other. Clear talking and respectful listening are difficult skills for most of us to master. A PERFECT WORLD draws its emotional power from a man and a boy who find that they'll do just about anything to go on talking to each other.

A Perfect World

Clint Eastwood, Director. Written by John Lee Hancock. 1993.

Commentary by Donald Williams, Jungian Analyst (Boulder, Colorado)
Originally published by The Freelance Screenwriter's FORUM

As a psychotherapist I see everyday how difficult it is for people to talk to each other. Clear talking and respectful listening are difficult skills for most of us to master. A PERFECT WORLD draws its emotional power from a man and a boy who find that they'll do just about anything to go on talking to each other. The resonance of the words that pass back and forth between Butch Haynes and Phillip Perry establish a measure by which almost all other conversations in this movie fail. From most of the characters who pursue Butch and Phillip we hear clich├ęs, talk to overpower, humiliating talk, meaningless banter, and stereotyped assumptions. Virtually everyone threatens this one extended conversation that Butch and Phillip risk their lives for.

It's 1963 and Butch (Kevin Costner) escapes from prison with his cellmate, Terry. They kidnap an eight year old boy, Phillip (T.J. Lowther), and the next day Butch kills Terry for hurting and threatening Phillip. Butch steals a Ford and travel supplies with his new young friend, eludes a manhunt led by Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Clint Eastwood), aims his stolen Ford toward Alaska, and finally dies in a grassy field in the Texas panhandle. Flight and pursuit drive the film but this is not a chase film.

John Lee Hancock as screenwriter and Clint Eastwood as director explore psychological currents of child abuse, of violence, and of sons and fathers (fathers missing, longed for, or brutally present). These themes form the heart and subplot of the film through the relationship between Butch, Phillip, and the "ghost child" of Butch's past. Remember that the film opens with Halloween, the night when ghosts escape. Butch escapes from a Texas prison on Halloween, Phillip from the oppressive rules of his Jehovah's Witness mother, and with them come the released traumas and dreams of their combined childhoods. Phillip is a kind spirit--"Caspar the friendly ghost"--but he can be dangerous too. We need to understand the father-son theme that unites Butch and Phillip to appreciate the central conversation that supports their relationship. The road conversation is the power of this film. When Butch and Phillip talk, they pull the audience in, and the depth of their talk challenges every other spoken word, every gesture or action.

Pick Up That Pistola

It's the night of the prison break and still dark. Butch and Terry cruise a neighborhood looking for another escape car, a Ford this time. Terry gets out to look around, finds Gladys Perry fixing a very early breakfast, and he breaks in and attacks her. Her son, Phillip, enters the kitchen, Terry sadistically backhands him across the face, and out of nowhere we see Butch's foot smash the side of Terry' head. Phillip stands and rubs his cheek while we notice the gun now on the floor at his feet. Butch kneels down, takes his time, and talks directly and personally: "What's your name, boy?" "Phillip." "Well okay, Phillip, reach down and pick up that pistola for me. Pick it up and bring it over to me." As Phillip picks up the gun and slowly walks toward Butch, we hear Butch say, "Point it at me...point it. Now say, 'stick em up.'" "Stick em up." "Perfect," Butch says. Perhaps Phillip is the "perfect" reminder of the moment when Butch picked up a gun to protect his mother. Butch and Phillip instantly engage each other. Suddenly everything breaks loose. A neighbor bursts in with a shotgun, Gladys' daughters appear in the kitchen, the phone rings, and Butch grabs Phillip up in his arms, Butch now holds the gun, and this young boy becomes not only an instant friend but also a hostage. Butch escapes with Phillip and Terry.

Butch's first experience outside prison recalls the memory of himself as a child, a fatherless eight year old like Phillip but living with his mother in a whore house. When he was eight, Butch shot and killed a man who was beating his mother. If there's anything "perfect" now, it would seem to be that Phillip can hold a gun, protect his mother, and stop more violence. What's perfect, however, is the match between Butch and Phillip. Within hours they will learn to understand, respect, and even love each other as two people seldom do.

The Postcard

In his wallet Butch carries a postcard from his father in Alaska, the only card Butch ever received. All this postcard says is, "we can maybe get to know each other." "Maybe" is all Butch has from his father who abandoned him and his mother when he was six, who beat them, who was in and out of prison, and who would, as Red says, "beat the hell out of everybody he came across, screwed, or fathered." There must be something that Butch saw in his father, something, despite all abuse, that makes him want to know his father. Their father-son conversation is a story frozen in time.

Butch holds onto any piece of his father that he can remember with pleasure. The piece of his father that excited him and got him into trouble was a Ford. Butch says to Phillip, "We gotta find us a Ford. My daddy always drove Fords, did you know that?" It was a Ford that Butch first stole and took for a spin at 14, and this "joy ride" got him four years in the "toughest juvi-farm in Texas." And just before his run-in with Phillip, he was looking for another Ford. Butch wants something of his father, and for lack of words to say it, he calls this something a "Ford." As they drive across Texas, Butch says about their car, "This here's a 20th century time machine." A car is his independence, his adventure, his pride, it can carry him far away, and somehow it sounds like "father." Butch continues, "I'm the captain and you're the navigator. Out there [pointing ahead], that's the future, and back there [turning to look out the rear window], well that's the past. If life's movin' too slow and you want to project yourself into the future, just step on the gas right here."

Butch finds out that Phillip doesn't have a father either, and this discovery seals the friendship between them. Everyone needs to feel special to someone; Phillip is special to Butch and Butch doesn't hesitate to let him know: "You're a hell of a navigator, Phillip...." We can tell that Butch likes to say Phillip's name and that Phillip likes how his name sounds in Butch's voice. "Me and you got a lot in common Phillip. Both of us is handsome devils, we both like RC Cola, and neither one of us has got an old man worth a damn.... Guys like us, Phillip, we got to be on our own." The truth is, Phillip brings out the best "father" in Butch, a better father than he or Butch could hope for--and this new father redeems the child in both of them.

Butch knows he is lucky to have such a navigator but tragically he can't give up his longing for his literal father. He asks Phillip to join him on this "1,500 mile hike" to Alaska. Finding just a soda, some gum, and half a Moon Pie in their grocery bag, they set off in search of supplies at the nearest farmhouse. Phillip will finally get his chance to Trick or Treat. Butch walks ahead, Phillip follows, reaches up to take his hand, Butch uncomfortably raises his hand away, puts it back down, Phillip reaches up again, Butch hesitates, and the third time Phillip reaches out, Butch accepts his hand. First there were the words--captain and navigator...father and son...friends--and now we get the subtle but full emotional gesture. Phillip wants Butch's hand, and to give it, Butch has to let Phillip have his heart. Phillip sees in Butch something of the man he wants to become. Butch must find the man in himself he respects, and he does. Many of us have longed for such moments with the people we grew up loving, probably but not necessarily parents. Like Butch, sometimes it seems like we'll do just about anything to follow a hopeful lead, however thin--something as small even as the dated, bent postcard from Alaska. It's incredible that we can create sustaining fuel from the slightest signs of love. It's tragic that Butch values the few words on his postcard beyond the volumes that he and Phillip speak to each other, tragic because they could not have their conversation if Butch had not carried this postcard.

Real Talk, False Talk

More than father and sons, child abuse, or violence, this is a movie about talk from the heart. Talking and listening is what Butch and Phillip do best. Most of us face limits, sometimes severe, on what can be said out loud. As a Jehovah's Witness, Phillip couldn't talk about his wishes, excited feelings, anger, sexuality, or love. In less than two days, Phillip gets to talk about sexuality, his manhood, bodily functions, the excitement of carnivals and Halloween, his desire to fly, religion, other people's rules, personal ethics. Butch can show Phillip that there's more to life than being good. Being good makes one good but nothing more, not mature, creative, happy, or capable of durable love and courage.

As Phillip's mentor, Butch gets to experience some of the uncomplicated pleasures of childhood that he missed. He helps Phillip to name feelings and wishes in careful detail. He never shames or criticizes him, even when Phillip interferes with Butch's lovemaking ("You mad at me?" "No.") or when he wants to go home to his mother ("We'll get you home soon, I swear, okay?"). They just keep talking. Butch finally asks Phillip to write up a list of everything he's ever wanted to do that was forbidden, to resurrect any ghosts or wishes on his mind.

Butch is extremely intelligent and cares about language--about simple, clear words. Anyone who has seen the film will remember his language lesson with Terry as they drive. Terry, still angry about getting kicked on the side of the head, says, "If you ever try that shit again...." Butch interrupts, "You're in the middle of threatening me." Terry holds up the gun and says, "It ain't a threat, it's a fact." Butch has Phillip take the wheel, he leans over the back seat and says, "In two seconds I'm going to break your nose--that's a threat." He immediately punches him in the nose, then picks up the gun from the back seat, and takes the wheel again as he adds, "And that's a fact." Terry, hurt and stunned: "I'm going to kill you for that," to which Butch adds, "And that's a threat. You can understand the difference."

There are also words Butch wants to hear, and he cares how they are said. After seeing a sharecropper slap his grandson the way Terry slapped Phillip (and the way, no doubt, Butch was slapped as a child), he tells Mack, the grandfather, to hold his grandson, Cleeve, and to tell him that he loves him: "Say it like you mean it... Just read a part...say it Mack, say it, it don't cost nothing." And later when he faces Red, armed deputies, and Phillip's mother, he calls out to Red, "His old lady's got to swear to take him Trick or Treatin' every year." When Red tells him, "She promises," he answers, "Make her say it!" She shouts her promise, and even then he checks with Phillip, "Shall we trust her?" "She's a real good momma, Butch." Words, who says them, and how they say them matter to this man.

Child Abuse and Post Traumatic Stress

Next comes the most emotionally tortured sequence in the film. Butch and Phillip spend the night in the sharecropper's house with Lottie and Mack, grandparents to six year old Cleeve. Recall that Butch was six when his father "ditched" him. In the morning Butch finds a record of Creole music, the music he used to hear in the "dime-a-dance" whorehouse where his mother lived. He gets Lottie to dance with him while Mack's in the bathroom listening to the news on the radio. Even the two boys join in. The music casts a spell over the scene, magical at first, then terrifying. Mack hears the news of Butch's escape, comes into the living room, grabs Cleeve away from Butch, slaps Cleeve twice on the side of the head--exactly like Terry slapped Phillip. As before, Butch strikes, knocks Mack down, takes out his gun, and says, "What's wrong, Cleeve didn't move fast enough? You make me sick to my stomach!" Butch is remembering his past now: the slap on the side of the head, not moving fast enough, the music, the dance.

The violence and the dissociated quality of Butch's behavior here accurately capture the post-traumatic stress reaction we're familiar with from war veterans and from the victims of child abuse. At first, the 78 rpm record of Creole music evokes the emotional tone of childhood, the whorehouse, maybe even a little warmth and playfulness, but it all changes abruptly when Mack sadistically strikes his grandson. Butch, caught in a current of familiar emotions, tries to remake the past, to get Mack to act like he loves his grandson. As victims of abuse and major trauma do, Butch dissociates--he acts out of character and becomes the perpetrator himself. For the first time, Phillip says "no" to him. He's out of touch with Phillip's fear, and out of touch with his own feelings. At this point he can act emotionally but he cannot talk about his emotions. He acts with a sadistic rage, the kind of rage he must have received from his father and perhaps from pimps and customers at the whorehouse, from guards at the "juvi-farm," and guards at the prison. Suddenly, the victim of abuse becomes the abuser. He ties Mack's hands and feet behind him. Phillip is afraid that Butch will kill the whole family: "You can go wait in the car or you can watch...you're old enough to think for yourself." Phillip watches in shock, tears in his eyes. When Lottie and Cleeve begin to say the Lord's prayer, Butch uses duct tape to tape their mouths shut. He silences everyone, stops talk, and violates everything he stands for, everything Phillip admires in him. Butch becomes like the others in this film who will not listen and who thoughtlessly hurt people. With the record now turning, the needle scratching, and the music over, Butch reaches for the gun on the floor but Phillip holds it in his hands and shoots, hitting Butch in the side. He shoots like Butch must have done when he was eight. The circle is almost complete.

The Final Conversation

Phillip runs away from the house into a nearby field and Butch follows, bleeding from his side. To Phillip across the field he says, "That was a hell of a thing to do, Phillip. You're a hero, probably be in the paper tomorrow. How you saved those folks.... I don't think I'd a killed them though. I only killed two people in my whole life--one hurt my momma, one hurt you." They keep talking. Phillip climbs a tree in the middle of the field for safety, and Butch stretches out beneath it and pulls out the postcard. He reads, "'Dear Robert, I just wanted to tell you that me leaving has nothing to do with you. Alaska is a very beautiful place, colder than hell most all the time. Someday you can come and visit and we can maybe get to know each other.' Short and sweet. That's my old man's style."

The next thing we know Phillip is down out of the tree and resting on Butch's chest. He helps him up. Butch says, "I've never been shot before." Phillip helps him up saying, "I'm sorry." "Truth is, if it had to happen, I'm glad it was you...as opposed to someone I don't know, I mean. All things considered, I feel pretty good." Just now a crowd of Texas Rangers, sheriffs, and others drive onto a rise above the open field where we see Butch and Phillip--with rifles, flashing lights, a bull horn, etc. Meanwhile, they're still talking about what happened: "What did you do with the pistola anyway?" "I dropped it in the well." "Good thinking."

A helicopter flies over the field carrying Phillip's mother, but Butch and Phillip are still thinking about dreams, Phillip's list, perhaps a ride in a "rocket ship" like the one above them. The conversation between Butch and Phillip in the field isn't over yet, and everyone has to wait on them. Butch tells Phillip to put his Caspar mask back on, asks "Are you ready to go home?" and then asks Red to round up some candy in exchange for "a ghost"--Phillip will get his wish to go Trick or Treatin'. Before he goes, Phillip wants to know what Butch will do--"I'll think of somethin'"--and then Butch gets to say goodbye--they shake hands, "Bye Phillip, it's been one helluva ride."

It's their conversation that seizes everyone's attention, that makes everyone wait. Everyone wants Phillip to "keep walking," and his mother shouts, "Run!" Phillip, however, isn't finished with Butch. Once again, their talk prevails. He doesn't want Butch shot and he lifts him up, takes his hand, confidently this time, and leads him toward the lawmen. Even as he faces Red, Butch and Phillip still have more to say to each other--he'll give up Alaska but he wants to pass on his dream--the postcard--to Phillip. He reaches into his back pocket for the postcard to give to Phillip. The sharpshooter misunderstands the movement and deliberately doesn't care. He fires, a man with good aim who sees nothing.