t he Mule, the latest film starring and directed by Clint Eastwood, has the unmistakable aura of a great director’s closing argument. Not that Eastwood, 88, has announced that he’s stepping back from making movies. In fact, lest we forget, this is the second film the director has released this year—the first being The 15:17 to Paris, about the real-life attack on the Thalys train to Paris, which was thwarted by the three Americans who, in an audacious if not consistently successful turn, star as themselves in Eastwood’s film. The Mule entered production in July—just a handful of months after 15:17 was released.
Nothing suggests that he’s slowing down anytime soon—so let’s not go popping the retirement-party champagne just yet. Still: The Mule has a fitting air of finality to it. Eastwood has had an old-world demeanor since his early years in the films of Sergio Leone, toughening up the Western genre with that snake rattle of a grimace. He’s one of those older actors who has, to this millennial, at least, always seemed like an “older actor”; even when young, his was a persona that seemed preternaturally determined to ripen.
But more than any Eastwood film that I can think of, The Mule makes that ripening its immediate subject—as well as the regrets, freedoms, and responsibilities to the past that come with it. Characteristic of Eastwood’s finest work, this is a film about its director and star as much as it is about the guy whose life he’s depicting, a fact that gives the The Mule so much of its eerie—and, at times, vexing, confusing, off-putting, and thrilling—power.
Not that you’d gather any of this from the trailer, with its dutiful presentation of The Mule as another straightforward Eastwood flick that strictly lives up to its title. But this, too, is characteristic of Eastwood’s finest work. They may draw you in with a good story, and you may—given your own impressions of Eastwood’s star persona and, more complicatedly, his politics—be saddled with expectations about his follow-through. But the results are frequently more fraught than advertised, less beholden to easy meaning. The Mule is no exception.
The film is inspired by a 2014 New York Times Magazine article about a real-life octogenarian World War II vet named Leo Sharp—or, as he was known to his handlers in the Sinaloa cartel, “El Tata,” a horticulturalist who, in 2009, began shipping cash—and then, later, narcotics—on behalf of the cartel. Sharp quickly revealed himself to be dependable. Before being tapped by Sinaloa, he had never gotten so much as a traffic ticket; in 2010, he delivered over a ton of cocaine. By the time he was caught in 2013, he had made over $1 million dollars.
Tellingly, Eastwood’s film shifts some of those facts just slightly. The Mule is set in the immediate present rather than a few years back, a subtle shift that divorces this story from its real-life subject somewhat, and maps it, gently, onto this filmmaker—and onto our current political moment. A further shift: Eastwood’s character, Earl Stone, is a veteran of the Korean War, not W.W. II, which puts him in orbit with Eastwood’s Gran Torino avatar Walt Kowalski—another, earlier re-write of the Eastwood myth.
Perhaps we’re meant to note the differences. Walt, a widower, was a grump and a war-rattled racist with a presiding sense of justice that in some—some—ways trumped his prejudices. Earl, though, is no grump, but a man who doesn’t seem to realize the party’s over. In the film’s humorous opening sketches, he proves himself a sociable ballbuster, a ladies’ man (he has multiple threesomes in this movie—you read that correctly) whose daylilies win him renown.
But he’s also a terrible father. When he’s winning a prize for those daylilies, and dancing the night away with the women at the conference, his daughter, Iris (played by the director’s real-life daughter Alison Eastwood), is getting married. He’s missing the wedding—falling short of fatherly responsibility in ways that, we soon learn, are par for the course.
Unlike Walt, however, Earl is not a forthright racist. It’s better to say that he’s markedly behind the times, referring to a black family as “Negroes” as he helps them change a tire (they firmly correct him and, passing a “Well, he’s an old white guy . . . ” look between them, move on), and mistakenly misgendering a member of the Dykes on Bikes motorcycle club (who give a bemused but not offended look when he too-chipperly waves goodbye with, “Bye, Dykes!”). To be clear: this is an idealization not only of Earl’s racial attitudes, but of the ways other people, specifically minorities, are willing to look past them.
Still, there’s little real animus there. Earl takes care to speak rudimentary Spanish to the immigrant workers on his farm, and the off-color jokes he makes indicate that he believes he’s earned a misguided familiarity. (Sean Penn pointing to Mexican auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu and joking, “Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?” at the 2015 Oscars comes immediately to mind; Iñárritu claimed to take no offense to the remark.)
You’re meant to get the impression, I think, that Earl is the type of person who likes to dare others to be offended—not unlike Eastwood himself. You’re also meant to gather that though he’s old, Earl isn’t as stuck in his ways as he first appears. The film documents not his redemption, but his knack for adaptation. Earl rolls with the punches as he enters the world of cartel muling, which arrives just in time: his farm has been foreclosed on, forcing him to relieve employees and take his operation on the road.
It isn’t long before Earl becomes a top hauler for the cartel—and starts using his money to repair what’s broken down in his life. He gives his granddaughter (played by Taissa Farmiga) money to finish school and for her wedding, and gives his favorite veterans’ hangout money after it’s destroyed by a kitchen fire. Earl also buys his old property back. There’s a self-interested selflessness to him—a desire to patch things over with a fresh do-gooder attitude that reveals the lapses and failures that have defined his life, even as it resolves them.
What defines this movie are not only Earl’s regrets, but an essential rejection of authority—interventions that tilt the film in surprising, peculiar directions. Part of The Mule is devoted to a D.E.A. operation headed up by Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper), who is hot on the tail of the cartel and, eventually, on Earl. The rest depicts the cartel itself, led by Andy García—who is willing to meet Earl where he is, hanging loose, just as he does. In Eastwood’s unexpectedly ambivalent hands, each of these threads become withering takes on power. The cartel is defined by its internal conflicts between force and empathy; the D.E.A. is depicted as quota-hungry, brash, and a little desperate, more concerned with nabbing someone, anyone, than with an equitable sense of procedure. The agency never concerns itself with the impact of drugs, nor with the communities those drugs destroy. And the police are worse still.
I am a fan of Eastwood’s films, which means I’ve learned to value the fact that they are more nuanced than Eastwood’s public statements about his political beliefs. What I find thrilling is the perception, precision, and immediacy—Eastwood’s unparalleled ability to craft arguments out of images, each shot slipping firmly into place with a lockstep sense of order that somehow leaves room for uncertainty.
But even I didn’t think I’d see Eastwood tackling racial profiling head-on, as he does here, or crafting one of the most terrifying wrongful police encounters in recent memory. It’s a scene involving a terrified Latino motorist who’s pulled over for suspicion of being “El Tata”—a man who says, repeatedly, that the five most dangerous minutes of his life are the ones he’s living right here, hands raised, cowering in front of the police. Eastwood, frequently ambiguous, pulls no punches here. There’s no wiggle room to question the scene’s meaning.
Maybe this is all consistent with Eastwood’s enduring fondness for the outlaw: for people who devise networks of being and surviving that surpass what the government, or society at large, is able to offer. Certainly The Mule, like many of his films, comes off like a keen reflection of Eastwood’s bountiful, jarring worldview. In some stretches, The Mule has the mournful air of an apologia, or at least a pointed self-reckoning that surpasses even the self-aware revisionism of Gran Torino.
But other parts of The Mule—the funniest parts—stubbornly double down on the man Eastwood has always seemed to be, on-screen and off. It is very much a “take me or leave me” endeavor—one that reflects back on Eastwood himself in ways that are obvious, even damning. There’s a thread in The Mule involving Earl’s relationship to an ex-wife, Mary (Dianne Wiest), who he eventually learns is dying. Anyone with their eye on entertainment news lately will immediately think of the late, Oscar-nominated actress Sondra Locke, who died in November, and of her troubled relationship to Eastwood in the 1970s and 1980s, which—per Locke’s 1997 book on the subject, The Good, the Bad, and the Very Ugly: A Hollywood Journey—culminated in multiple abortions and a drawn-out legal battle with Eastwood and Warner Bros. that effectively killed her career.
You’ll think, too, of Eastwood’s kids—not least because of Alison Eastwood’s appearance here as a daughter whose thwarted relationship to her father becomes the central axis on which our own feelings about the hero of this film will turn. At the premiere of The Mule this month, Eastwood was pictured with a handful of immediate family members: several of his offspring, his granddaughter, plus his first wife and current girlfriend. Maybe that’s telling us something, too. The Mule may be an apology, but it’s clear by the end that the apology isn’t ours to accept. Our job, as a public, is much simpler: take Clint, or leave him.
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