It was around the time that Clint Eastwood directed The Rookie that he became aware of his age, and started shaping his filmography around this theme. He had just turned 60 and two years later would solidify his name as a classical Hollywood director with Unforgiven, a film that had all the glory of a last hurrah for a generation that was on it’s way out. Since then he has directed 21 films.
Inspired by the true story of a Nonagenarian who transported hundreds of kilos of cocaine across state-lines for the Mexican cartel. The Mule follows Earl Stone (played Eastwood), an horticulturist so obsessed with his that he misses his own daughter’s (Alison Eastwood, Clint’s real daughter) wedding. About a decade later the business has failed, his house is foreclosed, and his own family has shun him to the exception of his engaged-to-be-married granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga) who somehow still believes in her absent grandfather. But because necessity really is the mother of crime, Earl joins the low ranks of a Mexican cartel transporting cocaine through Illinois. No one would suspect a gentle old man in his rackety pick-up truck. He proudly admits to have visited more than 40 states and never got a ticket, and if that’s that not the best reference for a courier, nothing is.
Eastwood is supported by a fantastic cast, including Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña and Laurence Fishburne as the D.E.A. agents assigned with stopping the drug traffic; Andy Garcia as the charming and benevolent cartel leader; the always great Clifton Collins Jr. as another cartel member that with an agenda that will surprise literally no one; and Dianne Wiest as Mary, Earl’s ex-wife who he obviously still loves after all these years.
But the film is through and through Eastwood’s, who takes this chance to tackle this confusing modern world that to this day he still doesn’t seem to grasp. And because Stone is, by extension, one side of Eastwood himself, it comes across as a genuine earnest emotion. In one small scene, for example, he interacts with a group of lesbian bikers (Dykes on Bikes) who he first mistakes by men, but ends up helping them after the initial shock. It could’ve been an embarrassing eye-rolling moment, but Eastwood treats it like a sincere trait that his character just discovered – an achievement unlocked.
We witness Earl’s growth through how he sees the world around him. The threatening gangsters from the beginning are later seen as friendly characters with their own interests and hobbies. His style becomes more lavish though he himself still looks the same – he buys a bigger and better car, he gladly helps others even when there’s a job to do. He has not one but two threesomes in the course of the film, and doesn’t seem even a little surprised that he pulled it off. In fact, if those background details weren’t there, Earl would like a clueless and happy Mr. Magoo that accidentally bumps into problems that he seems unaware of, all the while coming out victorious from the other side. But by layering the world, we are given the sense that Earl is expanding with it.
On the other hand the story with his family doesn’t really work. The dialogue is often clumsy to the point of embarrassment, and the actor’s never seem to grasp those awkward lines. Nick Shenk, who had previously written Gran Torino for Eastwood, struggled before with making family drama believable, relying too much in quick expository lines that feel rushed. And while I understand the importance that his family gives in the context of his character (and the resolution), I saw myself hoping the film would go back to the other, more compelling, main plot.
Ageing has been part of Eastwood’s career for the past 30 years, but he’s still finding new subjects to explore in that theme. Here he gives a honest portrayal of a man that is catching up with lost time. He’s a delightful complex character, sometimes funny, sometimes scared, avoids confrontations at all times and doesn’t even hold a gun in the entire film – something new for a Clint Eastwood character. He likes to throw cheap philosophy and easy morals about growing old and not making the same mistakes, which are simple and not particularly deep in any sense, but completely true to that character – Earl Stone would really say those things and believe he had just said some profound knowledge. Because the reality is that he’s a true fuck-up who strives to do at least one good thing before he dies, and sees his journey take him to the realisation of what that particular thing is. And that’s the most comforting thought.
Eastwood still is a terrific director – I forgot how good are his compositions using depth of field to populate a shot with more characters. Here he use the chance to study a little the country that seems to elude him. In the process he opens himself to a film about ageing that isn’t about passing the baton or past regrets, but about facing the acceptance. It’s a refreshing take but I suspect you had to be 90 to see the world through this prism.
Also, great range of Mexican-American characters that goes beyond the stereotype. That it came from Eastwood, of all the directors, is just surprising.
Some of the dialogue is hard to digest. Dianne Wiest was the perfect casting choice, but even she can’t sell a scene that revolves around cheap emotional exposition. Neither the director nor the writer are particularly interested in this side of the story, but are still given a good amount of context, some absolutely irrelevant.