It has been said that screen legends never die, and though that obviously can’t be true biologically, the power of enduring cinematic greats will never wither. Clint Eastwood is undoubtedly an enduring cinematic great, an icon whose 60 plus year career has continuously showcased itself as the pinnacle of greatness. And so in 2018, at the age of 88 Clint Eastwood has shown that while he has aged, his presence in the movies (both behind and in front of the camera) shows no signs of leaving our memories any time soon.
In The Mule, Eastwood returns to the director’s chair and also stars as the eponymous drug trafficker (the first time he has performed both duties since 2008’s Gran Torino) in a film whose heart is centered around themes of nostalgia, redemption and confronting the past. This is very much a movie built around Clint Eastwood who delivers a sensitive and charming performance and is perhaps not surprisingly quite spry in the title role.
His Earl Stone may be seen as a snapshot of typical conservative middle-class white America, reluctant to embrace new changes in society and traditional in his outlook; with the addition of the attribute of being elderly, “The Mule” is a man of contradictions. He’s tough and rugged on the exterior despite a playful nature, but really hurting on the inside. It’s not that he wanted to neglect his family all his life, it somehow just happened. And he wants only to make things right, but his choices are clearly wrong and so is Earl really a bad man or a desperate one?
Screenwriter Nick Schenk and Eastwood the director are not attempting to justify Earl’s actions or even asking audiences to feel sorry for him, but perhaps solely to be considerate of his situation and why he has thrust himself into the dangerous drug world. The fact that he seems to be very likable (despite the alienation of his family), funny and affable makes him the most unlikely candidate to venture into such a job. Even amongst the cartels, he works for, Earl endears himself and is quite unlike any “gringo” they’ve ever encountered before.
Indeed his first few drug runs are lightheartedly portrayed as run of the mill deliveries until he catches the attention of the crime bosses who drag him deeper into sinister territory. There is a slow but meditative pace to the film, like Earl himself, that builds tension and uncertainty gradually; this isn’t a flashy movie nor does it have a particularly bravura performance from Eastwood, but it’s nonetheless effective in its approach and relatability, particularly for some older viewers.
Interspersed with funny moments and banter (including with the cartels), The Mule offers a tenderhearted narrative that like its star is reliably captivating. When he is off-screen the movie does seem to falter slightly, however, with the simultaneous police hunt not nearly as engaging as Earl’s road trips. The officers (Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, Laurence Fishburne) on the tail of the elusive Mule are totally unaware that their prime target is an old man, but their investigation or process is never really delved into. They get closer to apprehending their suspect but audiences never really know much about how they got there, so it’s perhaps just that the movie is not called “Cops”.
This based on true events story is then clearly not about the war on drugs and its players on both sides of the law, but on one man who finds himself in a world, he could have never imagined. By juggling the images of a repentant senior along with those of a complicit crime associate, The Mule makes us question just how far we would go to right the wrongs of the past. There is not ultimately a big moral revelation to be had here, but even on a surface level, the movie is content to proclaim that not all criminal activity is what it seems to be and that sometimes even the most unlikely of people can be caught in a whirlwind of illegality.
For fans of Clint Eastwood, The Mule will not be seen as a groundbreaking classic in his vast filmography, but it is still very much a stirringly solid entry into his canon of work. Anchored by his assured direction and undeniable star power, even at this elderly age, the movie succeeds as an entertaining and thought-provoking viewing.
Eastwood’s natural ability to bring all of his characters to life most vividly (including old ones) has made him like Earl Stone the most unlikely icon of endurance; for Clint Eastwood is indeed one tough, tenacious and inspiring figure and while this may be his last run, he has shown with a lasting effect why his films are for the most part great outings at the movies.