The Pitch: Earl Stone is the mule. A transporter for the cartels, on the lam from that thing called life. But this isn’t some punk kid with gym bags and stuffed condoms at the international section of the airport, no. Clint Eastwood is the titular coke wheeler, and he’s a 90-year old horticulturist, and for all intents and purposes, a lifelong sonuvabitch.
On the surface, he loves growing flowers in his native Peoria, Illinois. Won awards for them, too. But that never seems to pay the bills, and has taken a lot of time and effort away from his family. He’s left a wife, daughter, and granddaughter on their own with nothing. Unexpectedly, he falls into working for a Mexican cartel for gobs of cash. Can he redeem himself, and make a little moolah along the way? No one suspects the 90-year man behind the wheel of a Lincoln truck, driving the speed limit. (It’s not the worst front for a drug organization, if you think about it.)
Raw, Weathered, Aged Hide: He’s 88. His back hunches. The pants are navel-high, and the belt hangs a few inches below the waistline. His hands shake reaching for the dash. His skin looks, well, wilted. And his voice, once the paradigm for stern terseness, is soft and cragged. Blondie, by all stretches of the definition, is old. This isn’t The Expendables. This isn’t Robert Redford’s dyed hair in The Old Man & the Gun. Clint Eastwood is truly old now, and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it. You’ve never seen a star vehicle quite like this.
Based on a true story in The New York Times, Clint Eastwood’s take on Earl Stone (real name: Leo Sharp) is docile and mostly harmless. A proverbial sweet old man with bowties and seersucker suits, he just likes to sell flowers. Earl’s slower than he used to be, ignored, written off, too flaky to be taken seriously by his family. He takes his time. He never picks up a gun, he sings along with Dean-O in his car, he likes fast food and detours through the white sands. He’s more than a shade racist, slurs popping out of his mouth with unnerving ease. Yet in the same breath, Earl isn’t spiteful in the same way as Eastwood’s Walt in Gran Torino. This balance ends up being weirdly appropriate in pitching Earl as an old man getting away with a lot. For both better and worse, Earl is one of the most well-rounded, least ageist depictions of an old man witnessed onscreen in some time.
As director, Eastwood allows himself to act with esteem, slowly burning out this Earl figure. Yeah, he’s an elderly man getting away with all manner of trouble, but at least there’s no grandstanding about the esteem of elders, or why Earl is in the right. He’s a man alone with his thoughts and sins, covering a lot of miles. It’s the jazz Eastwood loves so much, feeling out ideas with just enough meat to parse out the time. The movie likewise takes the slow road, occasionally lapsing into familial drama or crime storytelling. A well-placed police dog scare here. A wedding party fight in public there. A nice VFW dance for some fun. The more sensationalist embellishments, the battles between the DEA and the cartels, keep actors like Bradley Cooper and Andy Garcia on the sidelines. Save for a little gang violence, the most R-rated thing on display here is that Earl stumbles into two, count ‘em two, threesomes with significantly younger women. They’re mostly played for benign comedy.
These are ultimately all side attractions throughout an Eastwood solo road movie. He can still sell. He’s still glaring, thinking, and smirking. Maybe he’s atoned, maybe he can’t. Maybe he knows he’ll never patch things up, but that’s the appeal of the persona in this particular role. The deep thought. Now weathered, and visibly cracking before our very eyes. Eastwood is still an attractive lead, and he wields something he’s always been good at: thoughtful stoicism. The Mule is a ruminative effort. Eastwood, 60 years on, can still carry a star vehicle.
Sins of the Father: Earl Stone is just a man along for the ride. But how does a hard-charger like Eastwood fit into that role? He’s every bit as macho as the rest of them. This is the guy who once boasted to magazines about his workout regimen. A guy who ate burgers with Warren Zevon and ducked rumors of punching horses and kicking co-stars. It should be noted that, at the time of this writing, details regarding bad past relationships and behaviors have returned again to light about the actor/director’s personal life. They’re hard to ignore, especially in a movie about a lifelong lout trying to make good. It’s hard to separate. A guy who destroyed marriages and was abusive to women, now playing a man who destroyed his marriage and is searching for forgiveness? That’s the biggest challenge The Mule faces. To what point can we still seek absolution? The themes of guilt and unearned forgiveness might read tin-eared or untrue to many, especially for those in the know about Eastwood’s life. Unforgiven and The Bridges of Madison County were apology tours, something must still be bothering him. And that’s difficult to mediate here. The sins of the past usually are.
The Verdict: The Mule is a functional take on capitalism, work-life balance, and the creeping, overlong process that is aging. The tense moments click. You’ll learn how to dodge the police with Ben-gay. The comedy will make some groan, but Clint grumbling that the “goddamn internet” ruined everything? It’s the kind of self aware ribbing that he’s been able to work for years.
Perhaps most accessibly, this is a film about the Clint Eastwood toughness of old being all but gone. It’s victory lap stuff for Eastwood, getting what few remaining miles he has left out of his brand of acting. The Mule is a reasonably captivating star vehicle. It’s quite internal and reflective, which is a pleasant surprise. Sometimes, you live long enough to earn forgiveness. But people never truly forget the sins of the past, and Eastwood seems to know that.
Where’s It Playing?: It’s wide now, on a small scale. It would appear WB is saving money for their splashy release of Aquaman this coming week.