‘A Perfect World’: Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece on masculinity

The year 2023 marks the 30th anniversary of Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece on masculinity. 

The plot, set in 1960s Texas, follows escaped convict, the benign Butch Haynes (Kevin Costner) who takes eight-year-old Philip/Buzz (T J Lowther) hostage, then befriends him, while offloading vile fellow-escapee Terry (Keith Szarabajka). In pursuit are Sheriff Red (Clint Eastwood), criminologist Sally (Laura Dern) and trigger-happy marksman Bobby (Bradley Whitford).

This movie-long manhunt reflects on our capacity to change, and where possible, to atone. Its theme? Masculinity and male role models, misguided and mature. 

Buzz, Butch and Terry, hurtling ahead in a series of stolen cars, represent three imagined masculinities. Unspoiled Buzz is on a journey that’ll define the man he’ll become. Butch is reasserting himself as a man, rediscovering the boyhood he’s lost. Terry isn’t worried about how he gets his kicks, as long as he’s moving! 

Red, Sally and Bobby chasing after, in a swanky police vehicle, view masculine violence differently. To Sally, carceral systems, corrective or punitive, inadvertently turn wayward boys into wicked men. Red believes that such boys can reform if nudged in time, by conscientious adults. He’d once sent the boy Butch to juvie, four years for petty crime, instead of letting him go with his father, a hardened criminal. Now he’s less sure. Bobby inhabits a simplistic Indians-cowboys world, priding himself on picking off “bad guys” with his rifle: more a vocation than a job.

Good people do bad things. But, Eastwood insists, if they make a habit of it, it can reach them to a point where they’re beyond help. We are who we repeatedly choose to become. Our manhood lies in the mundane: what we long for, fight for, whom we’ll defend or attack and when, what we’ll give up, what we won’t.

Some of Eastwood’s women (Sally and Buzz’s mother) are barely on screen. His story is about men; two characters pray the “Our Father”, for heaven’s sake. But his women are vital. The shopkeeper lady warns Buzz, shoplifting is a crime. It’s his mother that Buzz mimics, her kindness, her moral compass. Butch, raised by a single mother, respects women and children, even if the dial on his compass keeps glitching. And kindly Lottie, the black lady they encounter, is a contrast to her compulsively abusive husband, Mack.

Some of Eastwood’s men (Buzz and Butch Sr.) are offscreen entirely. Radical feminists will have you believe that children are better off without fathers and women without men; to them “a perfect world”.

But screenwriter John Lee Hancock is saying that tragedies unfold when fathers are missing or might as well be, because they don’t behave as fathers (Mack). That boys need their mothers doesn’t need saying. But they need fathers too, to show them what manly courage looks like, why the size of their “pecker” matters less than the strength of their character and where the line is between risk-taking and recklessness; only the former can be calculated.


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Eastwood’s motifs describe what morals in masculinity might look like.

One motif is humility, a strength whose starting point is weakness. 

Buzz can barely hold a .38, let alone shoot straight, yet he becomes Butch’s strength. They may be proxies all right, rather than an actual father-son duo, but they learn from each other. Fatherhood doesn’t merely draw from sonship; it’s founded on it. We wouldn’t know how to be fathers if we were not first sons. In our ignorance lies our knowledge, in our weakness, our strength. Red goes further, “I don’t know nothing. Not one damn thing.”

Another motif is respect.

Butch wallops Terry when he misbehaves with Buzz’s mother and goes beyond that when he misbehaves with Buzz. Boys who learn to respect women grow up respectful men. They learn from those they love; Butch loved his mother and wanted to protect her. When boys turn out to be incels (or milder variants), question those who should have taught them better — fathers, mothers, schools, neighbourhoods. 

Buzz’s mother had already imparted to him the right values, so he’s less confused by Butch’s moral fuzziness: knowing what’s right, doing what’s wrong. Many of Butch’s “this or that” choices are both wrong. As they’re deciding on a hostage while fleeing Buzz’s home, Terry votes to take Buzz’s mother, Butch votes to take Buzz! Still on their road trip, Butch is trying, however clumsily, to get Buzz to think for himself, to act fearlessly when it matters.

When Butch steals a station wagon, he applauds the head of the family, Bob, for not resisting. Buzz figures that the family looks “funny”; his way of calling Bob a coward. Butch will have none of it, “Maybe. But Bob did the right thing. What if he’d put up a fight? I might’ve had to shoot him. Where would that family be then? No, Bob’s a fine family man. That’s about the best thing a fella can hope to be.” That’s the closest Butch comes to defining “a perfect world”. The family (a loving father, mother, and children) isn’t the outlier, everyone else is.

Yet another motif is restraint.

Three characters wield guns outside the law. Terry lacks restraint. Butch has some but loses it often. Buzz breathes restraint until conscience forces his hand. To Eastwood, there’s no heroism in picking up a pistol; he opens and closes his film with it — a metaphor for becoming a man. Real men, he argues, shun violence but won’t hesitate to use their strength to defend the weak with their voice, their presence, guns or no guns.

Here, violence seems almost a precondition to masculinity. All the men appear called at some point to threaten or defend or protect or attack. But through his depictions of men, Eastwood argues that masculinity excels when it loads the metaphorical “gun”, but fires only when essential rather than by default. All men come with an in-built “safety” on-off; only real men know how to use it. The rest are bullies.

Still another motif is, startlingly, refreshingly feminine.

Buzz is hurrying to catch up with Butch’s big strides, bigger because he’s upset with Buzz. Buzz has his Casper mask on, ready to trick-or-treat (code for relieving unsuspecting neighbourhoods of mustard sandwiches). Buzz reaches up to hold Butch’s hand. Butch tears away once, twice, then gives in, allowing the boy's tiny hand to nestle in his. A tender moment. Men can’t replace (and needn’t pretend to be) women. But they can learn to be at peace with their feminine side. Their children and women need to see it in them, who knows, they need to see it in themselves too.  

The menace of some men is often a mask, revealing their capacity to hurt, hiding their capacity to be hurt. Butch, looking menacing after a murder, strips his blood-red jacket off to reveal a pure-white shirt: the man beneath his pummel-or-pistol mask. In a perfect world, men would wear only pure-white shirts, and we wouldn’t fear them unless we were cruel. Until then, we must hope that their blood-red jackets stay wrapped, somewhere in the backseat of a car.


Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on culture and society. Find him on Twitter @RudolphFernandz

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