Mule Serenade

Nick Pinkerton on Clint Eastwood’s The Mule (2018)

Clint Eastwood, The Mule, 2018, digital video, color, sound, 116 minutes.

A BIZARRE, BRAZEN, AND OFTEN WONDERFULLY SURPRISING FILM, The Mule will slink into cinemas without the benefit of year-end awards season campaigning—its director and star, Clint Eastwood, is a two-time Best Director winner. But despite all his prestige and success, he has somehow managed to retain a distinct tang of the déclassé. His latest film is a departure of sorts, for Eastwood’s last three directorial efforts, American Sniper (2014), Sully (2016), and The 15:17 to Paris (2018), make up something of a trilogy dedicated to professional expertise put to service under extreme duress, each ending, in its way, with a scene of public validation of that effort. The Mule features its own scene of celebration, but quite early on, in a prologue set in 2005, when Eastwood’s character, Earl Stone, accepts a prize from his fellow horticulturalists in the National Daylily League. His family, including an estranged ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) and daughter (Alison Eastwood), is less than impressed by his professional accomplishments: “You sit around and hand each other trophies,” he’s told, in a savage dressing down describing the hollow payoff for his life’s passion. The gleam, it seems, is off the Oscar.

Eastwood appears as a film actor for the first time since his turn in Robert Lorenz’s 2012 Trouble with the Curve, here playing a Korean War vet and lifelong carouser who is hesitant to admit that the party’s over, taking work as a drug courier. The story of The Mule is based on a much-circulated magazine feature on Leo Sharp, a nonagenarian veteran and Michigan horticulturalist who was arrested for serving as a mule for the Sinaloa cartel. The facts are here given a fictional gloss and written for the screen by Nick Schenk, who also wrote Eastwood’s 2008 Gran Torino, the most recent film in which he directed himself. (For obscure reasons, the scene of the action has been moved to Peoria, Illinois, while the movie was shot between Georgia and New Mexico.)

Like Gran Torino, The Mule contains a share of pointedly impolitic moments, as when Earl is introduced while making a crack about deportation to one of his Mexican employees before later bandying comments about “Negros” as if it’s 1956 and, with jocular bemusement, shooting the shit with a lesbian biker gang. Race and identity are never non-issues in The Mule, nor has Eastwood ever much bought into the idea of a post-racial America—The 15:17 to Paris opened with African American Anthony Sadler stating, “You’re probably wondering why a brother like me is hanging out with these two crackers”—which makes the director seem simultaneously archaic and quite contemporary. His new film depicts the white middle-class Midwest—a world so white that polka bands still get work—but in a larger sociological context, not as a default normality. The Mule is a film that is necessarily about whiteness, depending, as its premise does, on the fact of “Caucasity” as a privileged status no less than, say, Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time (2017) hinges on Robert Pattinson getting away with all kinds of shit because he’s a good-looking white kid. Earl is eyeballed as the perfect mule because he has unpaid bills and, more important, because a pasty old gringo is unlikely to be pulled over by the cops and unlikely to take shit if he is—his easygoing encounters with a highway patrolman and a local sheriff contrast starkly with a scene of a Mexican American driver’s panicked response to being pulled over by DEA agents. Up to his elbows in debt, Earl’s saggy skin is the last asset he has to mortgage.

Clint Eastwood, The Mule, 2018, digital video, color, sound, 116 minutes.

A decade after Gran Torino, which traded on Eastwood’s still-imposing stature and physique, the eighty-eight-year-old actor can still flash his famous growl, but he no longer has the bicep firepower to back it up. Instead, Earl uses his age as a defense mechanism, a means for manipulation, allowing himself to come off dotty, though we sense that he is all but senile north-northwest. That Eastwood is a movie star is a fact no one can deny, but that doesn’t always translate into respect for him as an actor—and it should be said that his Earl Stone is a character quite unlike any he has played. Earl is introduced as a slightly foul-mouthed old sport, natty in seersucker, retaining something of a boyish twinkle about him. He’s incurably gabby, keeping up a muttered monologue with himself when there’s no one around to work his charms on, and he has a much-vented penchant for singing in the car—his performance of a raunchy little ditty rhyming Pancho Villa with “gonorrhea” is a highlight. He is also, in his way, an aesthete, and at one point speaks of the beauty of his flowers with a note of choked tenderness that exemplifies an artist’s pride in his oeuvre—a moment in which it is hard to escape the impression that this is a deeply personal film.

Earl begins his new career with charitable ends, hoping to pay for his granddaughter’s wedding and fix up the local VFW hall. The highway patrolman compliments Earl’s Jimmy Stewart impression, and indeed there is something almost George Bailey–esque in his charity—but when the pay packets keep coming, we see another side of Earl. This side emerges in full view somewhere around the time when Eastwood’s character retires for the first of the movie’s two threesomes, the famous unreformed old lech playing Earl as a bird of a feather: Dirty Harry meets Dirty Grandpa.

While Eastwood is very much at the center of The Mule, the movie doesn’t belong to him alone. Earl going about his rounds, in a rather too leisurely fashion for the liking of his employers, and fumblingly attempting reconciliation with his family shares screen time with scenes at the DEA office in Chicago and in the field, where two partners, agents Bates and Trevino (Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña, respectively, doing an enjoyable double act), pursue the mysterious drug runner known only by his code name, “El Tata”—a nice familial touch. In addition, we get scenes of handling business and jockeying for power within the cartel, whose sybaritic head is played by a fleshy and funny Andy Garcia. The relationship between these three braided narrative strands is by no means arbitrary. A granddaughter’s cosmetology school graduation, for example, precedes another very different graduation––a scene of violent professional advancement––and the same vocational pressures dominate in the three worlds of the film, those of everyday America, law-enforcement, and extralegal activity.

Eastwood has always been, to put things very mildly, a divisive figure. While for some, The Mule will inevitably appear as a red flag, a veritable cinematic MAGA cap, what it’s actually carrying—like its subject—is more surprising cargo. The DEA is depicted not as a steadfast wall protecting God-fearing Americans from rapacious Mexicans, but as a quota-driven bureaucratic organization burning untold taxpayer dollars in order to terrorize the people they’re supposed to protect, finally imprisoning a senescent veteran with no knowledge of the larger cartel organization. (Incompetent or iniquitous federal agencies are an Eastwood mainstay, with the FBI of J. Edgar, from 2011, as just one very prominent example.) The cartel gang members are, in the main, found to be amiable, jovial family men a world away from the inhuman menaces in this year’s Peppermint, and the movie suspends any moral judgement on the issue of the drug trade—it’s a job like any other, only “bad” when new management begins to impose a timetable-driven corporate structure and maintains control by discouraging fraternal feelings among employees. If there is any force of unambiguous evil at work in the movie, it is certainly the internet, destroying brick-and-mortar businesses such as Earl’s and rendering humanity slaves to their smartphones, which our crotchety hero grumbles about every chance he gets.

Clint Eastwood, The Mule, 2018, digital video, color, sound, 116 minutes.

Smartphone addiction is here an instance of youth-is-wasted-on-the-young folly, but also a symptom of the chronic overwork that runs through every aspect of modern American life in The Mule¬¬––a land of economic precarity, endless performance reviews, and, even for an old-timer such as Earl, no retirement finish line in sight. (A land also of natural beauty, seen flashing past.) Bates and Trevino are pushed to deliver by their higher-up (Laurence Fishburne), who has his own pressure headaches from DC, while Earl is paired with a superstar cartel employee (Ignacio Serricchio), who is never off the clock. The parallels are unmistakable; whether your boss is a “chief” or a “jefe,” you’d goddamn well better pick up the phone when he calls.

The emotional core of The Mule is Earl’s own late-in-life reckoning with his relationship to work and play, and all the preoccupations that have rendered him, to his belated regret, a stranger to his family. When dealing with these family affairs, Eastwood moves into melodrama, a mode he slips into as easily as a cozy pair of hiked-up khakis. His film has an endearing pokiness about it, a confident, ambling pace mirrored in Earl’s roundabout runs, which always leave time to pull over for a good pulled-pork sandwich, to stop and smell the daylilies.

Drowning in regret, the old satyr Earl is given to talking about the importance of family life to whoever will listen—including Cooper’s agent, whom he buttonholes in a scene that is something like the Pacino–De Niro encounter in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), set in a Midwestern Waffle House—though Eastwood doesn’t go so far as to imagine what happy everyday family life might actually look like. (Historically, he has preferred patchwork adoptive families, as in 1976’s The Outlaw Josey Wales or 1980’s Bronco Billy.) His adventure ends with a courtroom trial, concluding with the familiar assurances of jobs done well that now ring hollow, and an unfortunately phrased consolation to prison-bound Earl from his daughter: “At least now we’ll always know where you are.” The mordant comedy of the moment fades as the film’s final image, an enormously touching Delmer Daves–esque crane shot, finds Earl returned to his flowers—a placid vision of domestication as a kind of peaceful incarceration, and of work free from bosses, free from bills, free from trophies, free from all concerns save for beauty.

The Mule opens in theaters on December 14.