It’s been a good year at the movies for 70s icon now in their 80s committing crimes. First Robert Redford charmed his way through small town bank vaults in David Lowery’s equally charming The Old Man and the Gun. Now Clint Eastwood becomes the best drug runner the cartel has ever known in Eastwood’s own film, The Mule. Eastwood’s quick style lends the movie a lightness that makes it a pleasure to watch, especially in its middle act, though the movie is also lacking the poetry of Eastwood’s best films. I’m going to blame it on the script. David Webb Peoples, Paul Haggis, and Brian Helgeland know how to turn a phrase, both in the dialogue and in the plot. Nick Schenk looks to be a true-crime guy, and what his script lacks in linguistic flourish, it makes up for in get-to-the-point energy.
Eastwood has always played the consummate professional willing to get his hands dirty to get a job done and make a buck in the process. Eastwood’s “Earl Stone” isn’t packing a 44 magnum in The Mule, just a pickup bed full of pecans and whatever else the cartel adds to the pile, but it’s the same devil-may-care, antisocial attitude that makes him as good at drug-running as past Eastwood characters have been at bloodier vocations. Like Eastwood characters from the 90s on, he learns a thing or two in the process. That message – family is more important than work – feels a bit trite, but it is worth hearing. I try to listen to my elders, and when many of them say the same thing, we best beware.
So The Mule is a kind of apology. In that, it reminds me of another late-career outing by another pair of New Hollywood icons – Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Yes, I’m talking about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Don’t @ me. For all of its flaws, and there are many, KotCS has at its heart a deep sense of regret for the loves lost to professional ambition. It’s an apt chapter in a film series that’s always been about the importance of choosing family and friendship over work. The Mule, similarly, acknowledges something easily overlooked in Eastwood’s filmography – all his terse loners, impressive as they seem with their ponchos, cigarillos, and clinched teeth, are ultimately alone, and lonely is a hard way to live, particularly at the end of life when the only thing that lightens the terror of slipping into the beyond is the presence of a loved one at your side, if you’re lucky.
The Mule gets off to a quick start. We don’t see much of who Earl Stone was before he became a drug runner. Still, the guiding idea of the film is that it’s a bunch of little decisions that lead to someone becoming a monster. It makes me wonder what little decisions I’m making today that are leading me down a fell path. I don’t think I’m in danger of getting mixed up with the cartel, but there are more common pitfalls. I’ve seen many families torn apart by professional ambition. It’s the things along the way that get you.
The Mule suggests without stating it outright—curiously, since it states so much outright—that Stone has always been a cad as well. At least, that’s all I can make of the two scenes in which the 90-year-old Stone has sexual escapades with multiple women at once. Wish fulfillment? Maybe. Wish fulfillment comes into the end of the film as well, as the movie makes a move toward redemption for our protagonist. Again, the movie feels like an apology, so I’ll give him that fantasy even if it is as unbelievable as the two threesomes. I want everyone to be redeemed, even absent fathers and unfaithful husbands, even people who don’t believe in redemption beyond what they can make for themselves. I especially want redemption for them, I think, because if they can be forgiven, who can’t be?