The icon of “the lamb and the lion” originates from the book of Isaiah and is often discussed in the context of Christ’s return. The image of something powerful lying by something gentle captures our imagination. Both creatures involved are beautiful to behold, but we know instinctively that these two don’t belong together. One is clearly a predator, and the other is clearly its prey. How could something so fierce by design sit next to something so defenseless? This disruption of the natural order is used to signal the healing that will come when Christ comes again to redeem humanity, when the natural forces that keep the the lamb and the lion apart will be done away with.
So what does this have to do with Clint Eastwood’s 1993 film, A Perfect World? Well …
The movie follows escaped convict, Butch Haynes (Kevin Costner), and Phillip Perry (TJ Lowther), the eight-year-old boy he takes hostage to cover his escape. Despite the nature of their relationship, Phillip quickly endears himself to Butch, and the two strike up a friendship. Phillip has grown up without a father, and his overprotective mother has denied him many rites of childhood like sweets and amusement parks. So naturally, Phillip starts to look up to this man who takes him trick-or-treating while Butch grows more protective of the kid who perhaps reminds him of himself.
All the while the authorities pursue Butch with intrigue. Leading the search are Agent Sally Gerber (Laura Dern) and Chief Red Garnett (Clint Eastwood). These two characters are sort of like audience inserts who wonder whether or Butch is going to hurt Phillip.
This all comes to a front when the authorities finally corner Butch and demand at gunpoint that he surrender the kid. Phillip, worried that the men in uniform are going to shoot Butch, refuses to leave his side. Gerber and Garnett watch with interest, but another officer mistakes Butch’s display of affection for a threat and shoots him on the spot. Phillip, Gerber, and Garnett lament over Butch’s death. Phillip mourns the death of his friend as Gerber and Garnett only wish they could understand what they just witnessed.
There’s a clear lamb and the lion motif dressing the relationship between Phillip and Butch, Phillip being the former and Butch being the latter. The ghostly-white Casper Halloween costume Phillip wears throughout the film conveys a blank-slated innocence that leaves him particularly vulnerable. Given Butch’s history, as well as his violent tendencies, we can understand the anxiety over leaving the helpless Phillip under his watch.
Just so, we can’t help but hope that Butch will adopt Phillip or something by the end. We the audience have seen Butch and Phillip together, and we know what good they are for each other. This is where we see the salvific bit at work. Butch through his unrestrained mode of living helps the insecure Phillip break out of his shell while Phillip’s innocence brings out the protective instinct in Butch, such that he gets to be something more than just a criminal. The coming together of something dangerous and something innocent speaks to a better world, a more perfect world you might say, where the two of them can enjoy their relationship free of the social mores that prohibit their friendship.
But it’s not to be. The world Butch and Phillip live in can’t see a lion as anything but a predator and a lamb as anything but prey. A perfect world, a world in which Christ could again walk among us, wouldn’t have broken something so pure.
The wish for Phillip and Butch to have some kind of a happy ending speaks to our innate fascination with the lamb and the lion motif which itself speaks to our innate yearning for a better world. We want to believe that something dangerous can have its violent spirit tamed by something gentle and unassuming. We return to this image because we know that such an ideal is possible. What is the taming of our inner lion but a turning of our heart to Christ? When the world can figure that out, maybe we’ll see lambs and lions lying together all over.
Charice Cooper via “Fine Art America”