Monday, January 28, 2019

The Mule

One might reasonably expect a drug mule to get from A to B as quickly as possible, avoiding getting sidetracked and drawing attention to himself, but Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) is no ordinary drug mule. When he spots a family whose car has broken down on the side of the road, Earl pulls over to help – much to the chagrin of his cartel handler (Ignacio Serricchio) – and he can’t resist interrupting his journey to enjoy “the best pulled pork in the Midwest.” He’s no ordinary mule, and The Mule is no ordinary drug-running movie. Marketed as a nail-biting thriller, the film unfolds at a leisurely pace, upending our expectations with eccentric touches and surprising detours. It’s an odd and generally delightful experience, but as the weight of drugs in Earl’s pickup grows with each successive trip, so too does the film’s emotional weight and thematic resonance.

The strangest thing about The Mule is the fact that it is based on a true story, being inspired by Sam Dolnick’s 2014 profile of 90 year-old Leo Sharp in the New York Times. The role fits Eastwood like an old suit, but instead of coasting along comfortably on his charisma and long-established iconography, Eastwood gives one of his most tender, open and vulnerable performances. Earl Stone is a horticulturalist who spent years developing his business and reputation and neglecting his own family; the film opens in 2005, with 78 year-old Stone enjoying the adulation of his peers at a flower convention instead of attending his daughter’s wedding. The fact that Earl’s daughter is played by Eastwood’s own daughter Alison (her first role in four years) suggests a certain amount of reflection and self-critique in this portrait of a man seeking to make amends for past mistakes.

That has often been the Eastwood way, after all. As I Watched The Mule I thought of Robert Redford’s recent role in David Lowery’s wonderful The Old Man and the Gun. That film burnished and enshrined Redford’s screen image, being powered by his distinctive star quality and relishing the twinkle in his eye, but Eastwood has always been interested in interrogating his screen persona. The Mule was written by Nick Schenk, who scripted Eastwood’s 2008 feature Gran Torino – the last of his films that he also starred in – and these two pictures ten years apart form an intriguing double-bill. Both Walt Kowalski and Earl Stone are old men coming to terms with their place in a changing world, but if Gran Torino was a veteran gunslinger’s last stand, The Mule is more concerned with an old man contemplating the limited time he has left.

In fact, what’s surprising about The Mule is how little gunplay there is in it. For all of the menacing cartel foot soldiers standing around with machine guns in hand, the only firearm we see being fired on screen is the ostentatious golden rifle that a drug kingpin (brilliantly played by Andy Garcia) shoots skeet with – even a shot that takes out a major character is obscured from view  but the threat of violence is always present. Eastwood lets his camera linger on a couple of corpses, and he has rarely looked so frail as when he is roughed up by a couple of cartel enforcers, enraged by his penchant for going off the radar. It’s also a film in which Eastwood considers his own privilege, including two pointed scenes in which non-white motorists are stopped by police while Clint glides by with his trunk full of coke, or one in which his two cartel handlers feel the uncomfortable, suspicious glares of white Americans as they sit down to eat. “They see two beaners in a bowlful of crackers,” Earl tells them.

These scenes are played with a light, jovial touch, with the point being made all the more effectively as a result. The whole movie is like that. The Mule disarms the viewer with its offbeat, ribald comedy – scenes of Clint happily eating a choc ice while crooning at the wheel of his car, or partying with women young enough to be his granddaughters – and its casual filmmaking style, before shifting gears in a way that caught me off-guard. The scenes that Eastwood shares with Dianne Wiest, as his long-suffering wife, possess a gentle intimacy and a shared sense of lost time that is incredibly moving, while a quietly emphatic conversation between Eastwood and Bradley Cooper feels like a passing of the torch. Clint Eastwood’s recent films have been concerned with ordinary people pushed into acts of extraordinary heroism, but this tale of an elderly horticulturist just attempting to make the most of his remaining years and to rebuild broken relationships is one of his most thoughtful, profound and satisfying achievements. This great icon has given us his most ordinary hero. He’s earned the right to stop and smell the flowers.