Stockholm syndrome is just a fancy term for extended friendship, or at least, that seems to be the driving force of A Perfect World. Kevin Costner may portray kidnapper and hostage holder Robert Haynes, but at least he has a good heart and a bond is soon born between him and Phillip Perry (T.J Lowther). But beyond that odd variation of what Stockholm syndrome may be, Clint Eastwood directs and supports Costner as best he can. A Perfect World is an oddly fitting title. In a perfect world, the bond between Haynes and Perry would be an ideal variation of the father and son relationship. Still, we are bound by whatever Eastwood wishes to provide, and provide he does with this fascinating story that challenges odd layers of audience expectations.
By far the most obvious challenge is how we feel about this protagonist. Haynes may be an escaped convict and vicious man, but it is hard to dislike him. Costner is a charismatic leading man, and he uses that charm to win us over. That difference between Haynes’ free-wheeling running’s and the lawful, withering hand of Red Garnett (Eastwood) is drawn upon well. They are cut from the same cloth but the paths have thrown them the other way, Eastwood adapts that thoroughly well. He makes an entertaining shift an emotional one also. A Perfect World feels like the passing of the torch somewhat. He relinquishes the power he has as a leading man and steps into that supporting role that every actor inevitably finds themselves drifting towards. His embrace of Garnett strengthens the performance, and there are notes of this role found in later features like Cry Macho and The Mule.
A Perfect World is also a perfect opportunity for Eastwood and Costner. Eastwood’s desire to retreat behind the camera for a time was founded on this shift to a supporting role. Costner takes the reigns from Eastwood well, but it is not a role or a performance defined by the characteristics Eastwood would often exhibit. He does not “Woody Allen” it, so to speak. He is not pouring his personality into a better-looking shell, and the inherent differences of Garrett and Haynes make that clear, but also serve the story extremely well. It is the tough man attitude that is removed for Haynes, and it is not replicated in Garrett’s role either. They are still tough and masculine, but the softer side to Haynes and the relinquishing of natural leadership for Garrett leaves their emotions exposed, and Eastwood capitalises on it.
Tough and in desperate need of a break, Eastwood’s limited performance allows him to take a step back, a deep breath, and the time to craft a fine piece of work. A Perfect World is far from what its title would suggest, and the contrast there is founded more through Costner’s world-weary performance, at the same time instigating that layer of hope and freedom inherent to those who have escaped a simple lifestyle. His tale is one that audiences cannot relate to, but one they can understand. Haynes seeks a foolish destiny, he says that as if it were a profound and enlightened way of life, rather than one that sets him on the path for complete destruction.