If Clint Eastwood is a master of anything it has to be nurturing his image carefully decade by decade. Here he is at the end of his professional life playing a doddery old codger who gets on the wrong side of the law and pays the penalty – but hell, still looking good for his age.
Infamous for inserting hard-Right attitudes into his screenplays, often at odds with the sentiment of the story – there’s a scene sympathetic to the Republican cause in all his films if not permeating the entire film – he keeps giving us enjoyable stories so we forgive him. Moreover, he’s directed and starred in a few guaranteed to pass the test of time.
Warner Brothers studio loves him too. He keeps his Malpaso films low cost, chooses good actors, and brings the film in on time and on budget. Only once did Warners refuse to bankroll his picture, a new boss, and he walked, but the next boss welcomed him back. What more can you asked of America’s most successful auteur?
Is Eastwood really gung-ho right-wing? Is the SNP for Scotland’s independence? Every now again you are not quite sure. I’ve yet to write about my time meeting Eastwood in the hidden holiday camp of elite Republicanism, ‘The Grove’, surrounded by men who shape the world to suit their pockets. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. Not by a long chalk. I got harangued by a brutal ex-Nazi who called me a ‘Glasgow thug’, The only pleasant moment was talking to Eastwood; that old-school American charm worked a treat.
Eastwood’s last few movies have been a bit of a dud, in my opinion, the kind of careless choices old guys make. He loves heroes. His past three directorial efforts, American Sniper (2014), Sully (2016), and The 15:17 to Paris (2018), were quiet, low-key portraits of ordinary folks elevated to celebrity by acts of bravery which are then put up for scrutiny and debate by the chattering classes.
In fact, all his films are about heroes of one kind or another. To my mind they were exhorting us to pay respect to the Republican tradition, stay within the law but if it fails you, take the law into your own hands. Those films are the kind a director makes when he’s run out of ideas and a bit old-fashioned in vision.
The Mule – colloquial for a courier, is Eastwood’s first starring role in years and his first in a movie he’s directed since 2008’s Gran Torino. The two films have much in common: Both centre on curmudgeonly old grandpas, men who’ve stopped learning, who love the ‘old ways’, out of step with the new generation who use a new language, have new ideals and values and are angry with the old.
Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino was nakedly racist, sexist, and homophobic, barking abuse at anyone who crossed his path. The ostensible hero of The Mule is a slightly softer figure, but he’s still a man who’s guilty of neglecting his family and who’s sometimes too quick to fire off an insensitive joke. Eastwood is mining an old vein. Here, his grumpy grandpa gets drawn into a surprising post retirement life of crime when a drug cartel taps him to serve as a courier.
The Mule is based on the true story of Leo Sharp, which was chronicled in The New York Times by Sam Dolnick; but the film is written by Nick Schenk, who also scripted Gran Torino. The main character is renamed Earl Stone – he’s anything but ‘sharp’ – and Eastwood shows us essentially the same guy as in Torino.
He’s a war veteran – he has to have one right-wing redeeming feature, and a horticulturist, famous for his flowers’ vibrant colors. To Eastwood’s credit he makes us believe he is an experienced flower grower though we just know in real life Eastwood the filmmaker has never arranged as much as a vase of daisies in his life.
There’s no corrupt politicians in this story, bought by the proceeds of drug sales, nor policemen stealing the stuff for resale – this is an Eastwood movie, remember. All the thieves are low-down Mexicans. The cartel recognise him as the type the police will never suspect. His advanced age, years of experience driving around the country, and a spotless criminal record lead him to become one of the cartel’s most prized couriers.
I’ve always felt Eastwood plays cowboys of all sorts, every single character he’s taken on, and this is not him thinking differently. His Earl is a throwback to another era. “Your generation can’t open a box of fruit without calling the internet,” he grumbles incoherently to a young man at one point. In a flowers show held in a hotel where he wins top prize, he overhears one stall owner telling buyers they don’t need to visit his nursery, they can order over the Internet, a sign of things to come when the small-time grower will be put out of business. Earl’s days are numbered.
Earl doesn’t own as much as a flip phone. When asked by the cartel if he knows how to text, he replies only with a cocked eyebrow. But plenty of Earl’s interests transcend his age. He’s fond of attention, a job well done, and the company of women.
This is where we meet the Eastwood misstep, the vain movie star trying to prove he’s still a sex object. He’s aged, wrinkled, turkey-necked, and stooping, a sure sign he just won’t be able to … you know what, but if you want to see an old guy frolic with a threesome, this is your movie.
Earl isn’t quite the flash-Harry charmer Robert Redford portrayed in The Old Man & the Gun, (2018), but he still has that glint in his eye for a well-turned heel, or a fun loving lady. He’s polite enough to ask after his employers’ families and to form bonds with some of the hardened criminals he works with, without really caring for them. When it comes to his own family Earl is a massive failure. He’s despised by his ex-wife, Mary (Dianne Wiest), and by his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood, the director’s own daughter). He crushes his granddaughter’s admiration too, Ginny, (Taissa Farmiga) when she gives him a chance to re-enter her life.
It’s not unfair to draw parallels with Earl’s neglect of his family and the oft-married Eastwood’s own meanderings fathering a gaggle of children by different women. You can understand the thinking behind Eastwood casting his own daughter as a co-star. That resonance helps The Mule feel like a fascinating swan song though there’s no certainty of that given Eastwood’s prodigious output, thirty-eight films as a director.
In one of the film’s many bizarrely compelling exchanges of dialogue, Earl gets a cup of coffee with the man who’s chasing him, the Drug Enforcement Administration agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper), and tells Bates to remember his and his wife’s anniversary. The moment is trite, overly-sentimental, and yet from Eastwood’s mouth it sounds like a confession. The movie is laced with sugary sentimentality; you accept it, you just don’t believe it because it’s all too surface and easy thinking.
You’re never sure if Eastwood is correcting his right-wing attitudes at long last, a kind of on-film apology, or mocking new attitudes. In a scene in which he helps an African-American couple change a flat tyre on the side of a remote motorway they thank him. “It’s okay, I’m always happy to help Negroes” says Earl. The couple glance at each other awkwardly. The man corrects him. “We don’t like that term, sir, we’re African-Americans, or black.” Earl looks at them quizzically. “Is that so? Well, I never.” and carries on changing the tyre, apparently unaware of his insult.
In some regards this is a road movie, the open road, a horse and saddle exchanged for a pick-up and radio. Eastwood is the eternal cowboy, a lot of travelling scenes shot between dusty El Paso, the desert and his drug dropping city destination.
In comparison to his most famous productions The Mule is a potboiler. We get to meet poor Mexicans doing as Earl does but we don’t get to know why. They’re either dupes or drug lords. The pace is good enough to hold our attention, the social issues old hat.
This is a white man’s movie. As a result, this story is as much a eulogy for a country that Eastwood sees as crumbling as it is for the life Earl-Eastwood chose to lead.
- Star Rating: Three stars
- Cast: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Alison Eastwood
- Director: Clint Eastwood
- Writer: Nick Schenk
- Cinematographer: Yves Bélanger
- Composer: Arturo Sandival
- Duration: 1 hour 56 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?