At 88 years old, Clint Eastwood might be the hardest-working man in Hollywood. And now, with his second directorial outing of 2018 — and his best film since at least “Letters from Iwo Jima” in 2006, and perhaps 1993’s “A Perfect World” before that — he’s finally explained why.
Inspired by a Sam Dolnick article in the New York Times Magazine called “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule,” “The Mule” is a far cry from the red state fantasy that some people feared from a MAGA-era vehicle by an auteur who’s publicly endorsed the Republican Party in the somewhat recent past (two presidential elections and a zillion news cycles ago). On the contrary, Eastwood’s latest thriller is a tender, conflicted, and sometimes very funny meditation on what America conditions people to want for themselves — on how natural it can be to forget who you are in a country where work is an identity unto itself.
To that end, it’s all too easy to see “The Mule” as a semi-autobiographical movie by an immensely rich old man who refuses to retire because he’s more recognized as a filmmaker than he is as a father; a poignant apologia to the family he may never have put first (not for nothing, but Eastwood cast his daughter Alison for the first time in two decades, and invited her “secret” half-sibling to the world premiere). Then again, “The Mule” is also a goofy road story that doubles as one of the horniest things that Eastwood has ever made — his character has not one, but two different three-ways! — so there’s plenty of room for interpretation. And no, that’s not a joke.
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Even the title can be read in at least three different ways, though it’s clear to whom it refers: Award-winning horticulturist Earl Stone (Eastwood) is a stubborn old war vet who cares more about his flowers than he does any of the people in his life. The film’s brief prologue finds Earl skipping his daughter’s wedding in order to collect another trophy for his buds; he approaches the podium with a self-satisfied grin, blossoms in response to the respect of his peers, and dazzles the room with a charm that his ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) never got to see. When the story picks up 12 years later, Earl’s daylily farm is in foreclosure, and he’s left with nothing to his name but the beat-up old truck he’s been driving for decades. That may seem like a short-term problem for a guy pushing 90, but Earl only knows how to measure his value in money, and he’s counting on having some handy in order to buy his granddaughter’s (Taissa Farmiga) affection.
Unfolding like a geriatric riff on “Breaking Bad,” “The Mule” is yoked together by a scene that’s clunky even by the run-and-gun, time-is-of-the-essence standards of a film that prioritizes grit over grace (and a filmmaker who always has). Earl, shamed into leaving his granddaughter’s engagement party, is approached by a Latino guest who says he might know a way for a geriatric white man with a non-descript truck to make some easy cash. Cut to: The card-carrying AARP member rolling his rustbucket into an El Paso garage, where he’s greeted by a group of heavily armed men who stash some contraband in the trunk and hand the old man a burner phone. If you think you’re too jaded to laugh at Clint Eastwood grumbling about the internet, you are sorely mistaken.
Grumpy old man jokes notwithstanding, this toxically masculine meet-cute is one of several moments in Nick Schenk’s script that feels like a first draft; given that “The Mule” went from page to screen in just a few short months, that may have actually been the case. But the movie is like a straightaway on an unpaved road, and the forward momentum of its threadbare story is enough to power over the bumpy patches and logic gaps (contrast that with “Gran Torino,” for which the bulldozer-like broadness of Schenk’s writing was considerably less constructive).
Once Earl begins doing runs for the cartel, the movie effortlessly shifts into higher gear, and sustains velocity even when the action cuts away to a subplot about the standard-issue DEA agents who are on an obvious collision-course with our senescent hero. One of them is played by Michael Peña (who lightens the mood without deflating the tension) and the other by Bradley Cooper (who strolls through his scenes with the cocksure swagger of a guy who already has “A Star Is Born” in the can). Cooper’s performance deepens as the plot comes to a head, and — in a dynamic that evokes the central relationship in David Lowery’s recent “The Old Man & The Gun” — his character begins to see himself in his prey, the two men exposing each other as glorified lackeys who labor to no end; who choose work over family because their self-worth is rooted in capitalistic structures. There’s even an abbreviated thread about a cartel tough guy (Ignacio Serricchio) who can’t even imagine another life for himself; he is the job, and has been ever since a cigar-chomping drug lord named Laton (Andy Garcia, often seen toting a golden shotgun) pulled him off the streets and gave him a purpose.
What makes “The Mule” so sharp is how Eastwood — something of a workaholic, himself — sees that outlook as a double-edged sword. He finds real meaning in Earl’s flowers, and genuine purpose in the DEA agent’s task, but also takes full account of the costs. One of the more clever aspects of Schenk’s script is how it positions Earl as an accidental Robin Hood, using blood money to renovate the local veterans’ home and provide for the American public in a way the government won’t. That angle is flattened out so gradually that you don’t even notice it’s happening; by the time Earl threatens to become Laton’s top driver, the cash is little more than an afterthought. It’s the drive that matters.
Fittingly, “The Mule” suffers for its occasional detours, and shares the same blind spots as its hero. While there’s good reason to relegate Earl’s family to the shoulder area of his story, Eastwood reduces those characters to abstract symbols; they’re as thin and one-dimensional as the group at the end of “Million Dollar Baby,” if inevitably less cartoonish, and that hampers the sharp emotional turns in a third act that could have used a touch more feeling. But it’s Earl who shoulders most of the load here, and Eastwood — directing himself for the first time since “Gran Torino” — exudes enough leathery charm to forgive any manner of sins, both on and off the screen. His shrewd and irresistible performance is defined by a degree of self-awareness that once seemed to be in doubt, on either a political or a personal level.
Earl isn’t far removed from our collective understanding of Clint Eastwood. It goes without saying that he’s not politically correct (an amusing encounter with a lesbian biker gang hammers that point home). His rhetoric is woefully out of date, and he seems oblivious to the white privilege that makes him such a valuable asset to the cartel (the character wields an almost Jedi-like power over law enforcement). But the movie itself is constantly reckoning with Earl’s identity and attendant social value, and contextualizes his standing via a long and fraught scene in which an innocent Latino driver fears for his life during a highway stop. He’s as open and charismatic to strangers as he is shut and taciturn to his family, and while Earl might crack deportation jokes and slip into some condescending Spanish, the movie can’t help but afford the cartel members the same humanity that he does.
And even (or especially) in the moments when “The Mule” feels like the tired musings of an old man, it retains an ineffable honesty. Earl is nothing if not a late bloomer, and there’s no sugar-coating how bittersweet it is to watch him assess the opportunity for second chances, the almost 90-year-old man eying the time he’s got left as though Eastwood were looking at a shot clock off-camera. This is a movie rich with the wisdom of a man who’s fucked up more times than he can count — a man who desperately wants to make amends without apologizing for the meaning he’s found along the way. Yes, it would’ve been nice if family had always been Earl’s drug of choice, and he has to own the fact that it wasn’t. But this soulful and deeply satisfying film — a fitting swansong, if ever there was one — makes a compelling argument that change is always possible, and that the path we’re on is never as narrow as the highway makes it look.
Warner Bros. will release “The Mule” in theaters on Friday, December 14.