In 1963 Texas, convicts Robert "Butch" Haynes (Kevin Costner) and Terry Pugh (Keith Szarabajka) escape from the state penitentiary in Huntsville. Fleeing, the pair stumble into a house where eight-year-old Phillip Perry (T.J. Lowther) lives with his devout Jehovah's Witness mother and two sisters. Needing a hostage to aid their escape, Butch grabs the boy, who meekly accompanies them. The trio's journey starts off on an unpleasant note as Butch shoots Terry, following the latter's attempt to molest the child. With his partner out of the way, the convict and his young victim take to the Texas highway in a bid to flee from the pursuing police.
Meanwhile, Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Clint Eastwood), riding in the Governor's airstream trailer, is in pursuit. With criminologist Sally Gerber (Laura Dern) and trigger-happy FBI sharpshooter Bobby Lee (Bradley Whitford) in tow, Red is determined to recover the criminal and the hostage before they cross the Texas border. Also, Red reveals to Sally that he has a personal interest in apprehending Butch alive. Even though Butch doesn't realize it, Red has a history with him. When Butch was a teenager, he stole a car, and Red was the arresting officer. Due to his age and it being a first offense, Butch was supposed to get a lenient sentence. Red feared doing so would not teach him anything and would only encourage him to begin a life of crime. He thought that if Butch got a harsher sentence, it would scare him straight, so he bribed the judge to make it happen. Years later, Red has come to realize that the harsher sentence only encouraged the very life of crime he feared would happen. Now, Red is hoping that if he can bring Butch in alive, he can redeem himself for his past mistake.
Phillip, eight years old, has never participated in Halloween or Christmas celebrations. Escaping with Butch, however, he experiences a freedom which he finds exhilarating, as Butch gladly allows him the kind of indulgences he has been forbidden all along, including the wearing of a shoplifted Casper the Friendly Ghost costume. Gradually, Phillip becomes increasingly aware of his surroundings, and with constant encouragement from Butch, seems to acquire the ability to make independent decisions on what is wrong and right. For his part, Butch slowly finds himself drawn into giving Phillip the kind of fatherly presence which he himself never had.
Butch and Phillip try to make it to New Mexico, but find out that the highway they are driving on is unfinished. While asleep in their car in a cornfield, they encounter Mack, a farmer and his family, Lottie his wife, and his grandson Cleveland. Mack frequently abuses Cleveland, which Butch tries to tolerate, but when they figure out who he is, he puts a stop to it. He beats Mack and plans on killing him, but Phillip takes his gun and shoots him in the stomach. Then he gets out of the house, drops the gun into a well, throws the car keys away and runs across a meadow. Butch follows him and rests at the tree Phillip has climbed. In the following dialogue Phillip apologizes for shooting Butch who tells him he did the right thing.
Red's team surrounds the place where Phillip and Butch are situated, the latter sending the boy away to his mother, who is with Red's team. Unwilling to leave the already wounded Butch, the boy runs back and hugs him – a gesture which, along with his knowledge of Butch's character and background, convinces Red that he can resolve the situation peacefully. His plans are thwarted, however, when Bobby Lee, mistaking one of Butch's gestures to suppose he is about to draw a gun, fires a shot into his chest and kills him. The move leaves Red angry and frustrated at his inability to save Butch and take him alive. Red punches Bobby Lee and walks away. Phillip is reunited with his mother, and the two of them fly away in a helicopter.Kevin Costner as Robert "Butch" Haynes
Clint Eastwood as Chief "Red" Garnett
Laura Dern as Sally Gerber
T.J. Lowther as Philip "Buzz" Perry
Keith Szarabajka as Terry Pugh
Leo Burmester as Tom Adler
Paul Hewitt as Dick Suttle
Bradley Whitford as Bobby Lee
Ray McKinnon as Bradley
Mary Alice as Lottie
Wayne Dehart as Mack
Linda Hart as Eileen
Cameron Finley as Bob Fielder, Jr.
Gil Glasgow as Pete
Marco Perella as Trooper
While Eastwood was making In the Line of Fire, he was given the screenplay to A Perfect World. He was also in the midst of campaigning for the Academy Awards with Unforgiven and saw A Perfect World as an opportunity to work as a director only and take a break from acting. However, when Kevin Costner was approached with the screenplay for the movie, he suggested that Eastwood would be perfect for the role of Texas Ranger Red Garnett. Eastwood agreed, realizing that his screentime would not be as significant, leaving most of the time to work behind the camera.
The film was shot in Martindale, Texas, in between San Marcos and Lockhart in the spring and summer of 1993.
A Perfect World was released in United States theaters in November 1993, grossing $31.1 million in box office receipts in the United States with an international gross of $104 million for a total of $135.2 million. The film received largely positive reviews, with an 81% score on Rotten Tomatoes based on 32 reviews. The film won considerable praise for its emotional depth and accurate depiction of the psychology of hostage situations. Kevin Costner's subtly nuanced portrayal of the escaped convict Butch Haynes forms the cornerstone of the film's success and has been hailed as one of the actor's finest performances yet. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called it "a film any director alive might be proud to sign," while The New York Times hailed it as "a deeply felt, deceptively simple film that marks the high point of Mr. Eastwood's directing career thus far."
In the years since its release, the film has been acclaimed by critics as one of Eastwood's most satisfying (albeit underrated) directorial achievements, and the scenes between the convict (Costner) and his young captive (T. J. Lowther) have been acknowledged as some of the most delicately crafted sequences in all of Eastwood's body of work. Cahiers du cinéma selected A Perfect World as the best film of 1993.