At the beginning of Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World, we’re shown a man (Kevin Costner) laying in the grass—photographed above his chest, his arm behind his head, eyes closed. There’s a Casper the Friendly Ghost Halloween mask to his right, and dollar bills begin to blow into the frame and rustle across his body. We’ll learn what all this means in due time, but regardless of context there’s a peacefulness in this moment that can’t be denied, and it’s something that becomes all the more heartbreaking each time you revisit this compelling work that often goes underdiscussed in Eastwood’s directorial oeuvre.

In the scenes that follow, we’ll learn this man’s name: Butch Haynes. We meet his cellmate and fellow prison escapee, Terry Pugh (Keith Szarabajka), and it’s immediately evident that the two men, despite both being criminals, are wildly different. We learn this when Terry breaks into the home of a single mother and her three children, attacking and molesting the mother, and Butch follows in an attempt to stop him. The incident leads them to take a hostage, eight-year-old Philip (T.J. Lowther), and hit the road once more.

As the film moves forward, Terry is thankfully expunged from the narrative and the story becomes a fully illustrated portrait of Butch and Philip’s relationship. A Perfect World take its time getting there, letting the bond between these two characters play out ambiguously with slight glances and small gestures, rather than big lines and sweeping actions. The collaborative performances of Costner and Lowther are revelations; in every instance they’re revealing something new, not only about the psyche of the characters but of the nature of human connection in all its intricacies. Each scene the two share gives you something to examine on a soulful level, giving us reason to relate to both man and boy, alike yet in completely different ways.

And on a filmmaking level, it’s some of the most delicate work Eastwood has ever done. There’s heart on the sleeve of every frame, and it never feels heavy-headed. No, just wholly authentic and fully realized, waiting to be perceived, interpretated and deeply, deeply felt by the viewer. If anything, this work’s heart should be truly admired, as this sensitivity is something that is certainly present throughout Eastwood’s career, but not always as wonderful as it is here.

Another fine element of A Perfect World is that it never casts judgment. Yes, Butch is a criminal, a kidnapper, but we see cracks in his hardened persona throughout that make us realize… yes, he’s a human, too. So much is seen through the perspective of Philip, who studies his surroundings with a juvenile eye that’s perhaps a tad too trusting, but even he can see the difference between a truly evil man and a man who has made more than his fair share of mistakes and is now paying the price.

Following Eastwood’s widely considered masterpiece, Unforgiven, it’s no surprise that this movie perhaps got caught in a cultural shadow a bit, but it produces plenty of radiance on its own accord to be considered amongst the filmmaker’s very best.

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