At 88, Clint Eastwood seldom appears on screen anymore and last acted in a movie in 2012’s mediocre Trouble with the Curve. So the final images of The Mule may be the last we see of him at the movies. If so, what an exit: understated perfection, with a playful hint of subverting his screen image.
The Mule is an oddly endearing, kind of wonderful little picture in which Clint plays an isotope of his cranky old bastard Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino, and once again he’s getting mixed up with gang members. This time, though, he’s working for them. Huh?
Eastwood’s Earl Stone, the kind of old cuss who refers to a Latino’s car as a “taco wagon,” is a stand-in for every absentee dad in the land. A career traveling salesman, he’s spent his life on the road, but nowadays prefers to grow lilies in solitude. His ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) and daughter (Eastwood’s real-life daughter Alison) want nothing to do with him. He’s boozing it up with some fellow horticulturists when he remembers it’s his daughter’s wedding day. A flash of recognition comes over his face, but then he just . . . keeps on drinking.
That’s bad enough. But then, with hardly a second thought, Earl (whose house is in foreclosure and whose truck looks like he bought it from the Joad family) drifts into becoming a major drug trafficker. At first, he seems oblivious to what’s happening when some fine gentlemen wielding military-grade rifles tell him to run a package across state lines. But gradually it sets in that Earl, who is based on a real drug runner of similar age profiled in a magazine article, just doesn’t care that he’s an employee of some of the worst people in the hemisphere. And the script, by Gran Torino writer Nick Schenk, plays his escapades for laughs: Who would suspect a dotty old man of having hundreds of pounds of cocaine in the bed of his pickup? The ultimate head of the cartel, the drug lord played by Andy Garcia, advises his operatives to give the old coot plenty of leeway to do things the way he wants; he’s become an essential part of the operation. (Any movie that includes this particular actor in this particular role is really missing an opportunity if it isn’t called “Bring Me the Head of Andy Garcia,” but I’ll let that go.)
Earl is so invisible that he can have breakfast with one of the DEA agents (Bradley Cooper) on his trail and inspire no suspicion whatsoever. He just keeps driving his load from Texas to the upper Midwest as though he’s delivering jellybeans, singing along to Dean Martin on the stereo. Silently I was shouting, “What are you doing, Earl? These guys are killers! Don’t take their blood money!”
But this Methuselah of Meth (okay, coke, whatever) just wears you down with his roguish nonchalance. So this is the end point of all those legendary Eastwood tough guys, the Dirty Harrys and the Philo Beddoes and the Blondies (actually, now that I think about it, two of those names don’t sound very tough after all). Though the script never states it, Earl is so close to death that nothing else can possibly faze him. He’s the ultimate nothing-left-to-lose hard case. Stick a pistol in his chest if you want. What does he care? Life is a ride, and he’s just going to bump along until it stops. Also, he’s funny. “Who do you have to kill to get a place like this?” he asks the cartel boss at the latter’s hacienda.
In effect, the movie is the second half of a double feature to accompany September’s The Old Man and the Gun, which Robert Redford has said (might) be his last movie and is also about a merry old criminal, in Redford’s case a bank robber. The earlier movie is nicely done, but The Mule drills deeper: that Earl (like Redford’s character) does some good deeds with his ill-gotten loot is incidental. He’s a deeply flawed figure even before he becomes a drug runner. He has no justification for the many times he has let his family down. Much is simply left out of the script, which is what I like about it. We all know people like Earl in real life. They cause a lot of chaos and misery and rarely do they get redefined via a heartwarming third-act reveal so we can forgive all before the credits roll. Earl is who he is. He isn’t a great guy underneath it all.
This waspish quality, though, is why a late scene that draws the movie together carries so much weight. When Earl is told, “You were the love of my life, and the pain of my life,” those words resonate the way “Go ahead, make my day” once did. So does Earl’s conclusion that “all you need is your family. You don’t need all that other sh**.” Eastwood’s own domestic history has been a bit tangled; CNN reported he has had eight children by six different women, although accounts differ. So The Mule has the feel of a late confession from an imperfect patriarch. What’s more compelling is to consider how many Earls there must be out there, how many people who were the love, and the pain, of someone’s life.