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A Perfect World – Film Analysis Report (Assessment)

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Updated: Apr 2nd, 2020


A Perfect World is a very good example of exploiting the key elements of the criminal drama genre to the maximum. The movie matches the expectations of the audience perfectly, offering them the stock characters of a typical “good criminal” and just as obviously “bad criminal.” Set in a typical suburbia, the background of the movie creates a conflict with the theme of crime and punishment, which it renders, therefore, creating a unique conflict.

The shooting scene, for instance, represents a contrast between calm and sunny suburbia and the dark scene of Phillip making the most difficult choice in his life and shooting at Butch: “I told him it was the right thing to do” (A Perfect World 01:27:51).

What movie does differently from the rest of criminal dramas is touching upon the despicable issue of child molestation, thus, warranting a PG-13 rating. As soon as the issue is raised, it becomes clear that Butch and Perry, the boy are very compelling characters. The idea of these two developing father – son relationships in the midst of a criminal drama is very clever and anything but trivial.


Despite a relatively short running time, the movie manages to incorporate several major themes into the narrative; apart from the legal thread of the film and the related dilemmas, the culture of the law enforcement and religious concepts are represented in A Perfect World quite successfully. Though religious issues are typically considered an element, which is alien to the criminal drama aesthetics, Johnson manages to integrate complex religious problems into the movie as well.

In fact, the very title of the film hints at the religious context of the plot: A Perfect World can be seen as a metaphor for Heaven, and the characters’ journey can be interpreted as Butch’s path of cleansing of a sin.

The attempt at approaching the complex issue of redemption can be seen in the mise-en-scene of taking Lottie and her family hostages: “Our Father, which are in heaven, Hallo be thy name” (A Perfect World 01:41:09). The editing of the scene, the camera switching from one motionless character to another, shows the incredible emotional strain.


Apart from the molestation controversy, the movie taps into religious issues as well, therefore, creating a unique blend of cultural, political and legal dilemmas. One might argue that the movie applauds to what the Christian tradition criticizes, starting with the fact that a criminal is portrayed as a positive character, down to the fact that half of the things that the boy learns from Butch are far from complying with the traditional Christian postulates.

For example, at some point, Butch acknowledges openly that he is going to leave his accomplice on his own: “’Why’d he take the keys?’ ‘So I won’t leave him.’ ‘Would you leave him?’ ‘Oh, yeah.’” (A Perfect World 00:20:03). However, one may argue that the characters prefer to declare their strong Christian convictions through their actions and stay cold and ironic on the outside. Thus, the movie trusts the audience to be smart enough to understand the numerous innuendoes of the film instead of being fed with on-the-nose plain truth.

For instance, Phillip wearing the Casper the Friendly Ghost costume is a very delicate metaphor for the movie’s attempt at saying that every single person, even a criminal, has the right for redemption, and children, as the embodiment of purity, can be their guides and spiritual mentors in this journey. The fact that the costume was stolen adds even more layers to the metaphor and makes it very tempting to read more meanings into the scene than the director actually intended to include there.


Another important motif of the movie, the haunting past allows for decent character development. Each of the three key characters has a depressing past as a foil for them to develop on, and the past traumas, which they have suffered, affect their present behavior and interactions with other people.

The fact that Butch has never had a normal childhood can be traced in the awkwardness that he experiences whenever communicating with Phillip or touching upon family issues. He tries to cover this by being sarcastic: “No, Bob’s a fine family man” (A Perfect World 01:12:59).


As it has been stressed above, most of the characters represented in the ovie have major family issues. Phillip seems to be the only exception, with a loving mother by his side; however, even his family background cannot be considered perfect, since he does not have a father. Therefore, the key movie characters, particularly, Butch and Phillip, create their own substitute for a family, developing the father – son relationships that they have never had yet were yearning so much for.


One of the minor drawbacks of the movie is that it does not offer a very broad perspective of gender role issue. Apart from Lottie, Sally Gerber and Eileen, who only play a minor part in the overall movie canvas and serve as background characters, the film does not feature any colorful female leads. Sally Gerber, the criminologist, can be considered a welcome change of pace in this approach, yet she does not have too much of screen time to evolve completely.

She is smart and witty; the timing in the scene where she answers to a rude commentary of the policeman: “No doubt an observation based on personal experience” (A Perfect World 01:51:29) is pitch-perfect.


One of the key specifics of the movie is that its every scene has two major characters developing unique relationships and serving as the foil for each other to develop on. Thus, the theme of a “hostage” seems to be among the key motifs. This approach leads to viewing the major motifs of the movie in a different light.

For instance, the aforementioned religious issue is envisioned through the lens of a dialogue between the evil (Butch) and the good (Phillip), the gender issues are portrayed through the relationships between Sally Gerber and Bobby Lee, a sharpshooter, the legal problems are interpreted through the interactions between Butch and Bobby, etc.

Dualism, therefore, is the basis for the movie philosophy (Ellis 49). The good-v.-evil dichotomy shines through in the ghost costume scene and the way in which Butch switches between being kind and mad: “Now that you got yourself a ghost suit… think she’ll let you trick-or-treat?” (A Perfect World 01:55:21–01:55:26).


Though the plot of the movie is cemented in a particular slice of time, even some of the campy elements of the film do not create alienation between the viewer and the characters. Perhaps, the given phenomenon can be attributed to the fact that the characters are very relatable. Every scene of Phillip and Butch’s interaction puts a smile on the viewer’s face: “’You’re not bad, are you, Butch?’ – ‘Yeah.’” (01:58:01–01:58:07).

Shared Associations

A Perfect World shares a range of elements with a range of other movies and novels. Such a mise-en-scene as the one in which Butch avoids responding to Phillip’s “Do they want to shoot you?” (A Perfect World 02:00:27) and in which the camera moves from Butch to the kid to show the tension, are rather common in movies and literature. For example, the theme of redemption of a criminal was also rendered exceptionally by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables (Hoffheimer 183).

Works Cited

A Perfect World. Ex. Prod. Mark Johnson. Burbank, CA: Malpaso Productions. 1993. DVD.

Ellis, Robert M. A Theory of Moral Objectivity. New York, NY: Lulu.com. 2012. Print.

Hoffheimer, Michael H. “Jean Valjean’s Nightmare: Rehabilitation and Redemption in Les Misérables.” McGeorge Law Review 43.2 (2012), 169

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