“So help me god, this is the last one.” These lines, spoken by Clint Eastwood in the trailer for The Mule, feel very ominous. At age 88, when the film was released, the film’s director and star may have been feeling that the time had finally come to bring his sixty-year career to a close.
Indeed, The Mule is the kind of late-career film we’ve seen from plenty of directors before. It’s gentle, full of life lessons and follows a flawed central character on a journey of awakening and redemption. While it does fall into stereotype and is self-indulgent at times (there are two threesome scenes), it’s agreeable and earnest throughout, as well as compelling in key moments.
Though Eastwood’s less-than progressive politics have put him out of favour in the current climate, it’s undeniable that few people still active the industry have a greater living legacy than him.
He is a synonymous icon of the western genre and his filmography is packed with quality titles, from Dirty Harry to Letters from Iwo Jima. Even in his later years, instead of resting back on mythology, he continues to experiment and explore new ideas and genres (admittedly with varying results).
Crucially, his films almost always have no agenda. Behind the camera he puts the real world to one side and focuses on what’s on screen – and his impact and longevity have really earned him the right for audiences to do the same.
The Mule sees Eastwood back in front of the camera a decade after supposedly bid farewell to his screen persona in Gran Torino (At the time he said it would be his last film as an actor.) We can only guess what it was that made him want to come out of retirement to take on the role of Earl Stone, who is based on former White House gardener Leo Sharp, but it’s a role he seems to inhabit with ease.
The film opens with the workaholic Stone passing on his daughter’s wedding in favour of a trade show – an act that later sees him estranged from both his daughter and wife. Many years later rift in the family is still wide, even with his granddaughter (American Horror Story’s Taissa Farmiga) wanting to cool the bad blood, with little success.
Now out of business, broke and with nowhere to go, a chance encounter connects the octogenarian with a group who pay him big money to transport packages from Illinois across the Mexican border. While at first he is unsure of the reality of what’s actually happening, he soon realises he is transporting drugs for a cartel, who find his unassuming nature makes him the perfect mule.
His opposition to what is short lived, as he enjoys the journeys he makes and the people he meets, while the money he gets in return gives him the means to make things better for his friends and family – the thing he had never been able to do and made him most feel like a failure.
However, word of this new, unknown mule reaches the DEA, and given the task of tracking him down is agent Colin Bates, played by Bradley Cooper in his second collaboration with Eastwood after American Sniper. It’s not long before the heat start closing in on him.
Whether or not The Mule actually is a swan song, there’s a lot in the film that feels personal to Eastwood. He casts his real-life daughter Alison as his daughter in the film, whom Stone reconciles with after having missed out on so much with her. This is something we’re used to seeing in films of this type, but exchanges between this real life father and daughter adds another level to these moments.
Also of note is a scene set in a waffle house, where he gives life advice to Bradley Cooper – like Clint in real life, a leading man turned successful American director. This exchange, which is recalled later on in the film, feels almost like he is anointing his successor.
As with all Eastwood films, though, self-reference takes a back seat to story. While The Mule does not innovate or break any new ground, it is a solid drama, affecting and absorbing with well-written characters. Also in its favour is that it is free of tricks to try and manipulate, instead relying on the acting and the script to get us to warm to the action.
It has its rough patches, but it gets past those thanks to its genial tone and good nature, which Eastwood equals in his performance. While this isn’t his best work either as actor or director – as a drama it doesn’t have the emotional resonance of something like Unforgiven or Gran Torino – but it’s an easygoing film that everyone can take something away from.
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