Clint Eastwood has been near death for decades. Not in real life, where Eastwood still makes a movie or two every year and adheres to a strict regimen of smoothies and exercise. Now 88, he nonetheless seems likely to outlive everyone reading this. But onscreen, Eastwood has spent the past few decades considering legacies and passed torches. Since Heartbreak Ridge in 1986, where he played a Marine trying to whip a new generation into shape before retiring, Eastwood has let his age become an element of his movies, and the choice has served him well, whether playing a gunfighter tortured by the misdeeds of his past in Unforgiven or a retired auto worker forced to re-examine his prejudices and make way for a new sort of America in Gran Torino.
Eastwood’s latest, The Mule, is another reckoning with what really matters in the end. It’s the fact-based story of a down-on-his-luck horticulturist who’s recruited by drug runners to make cross-country drives while looking like the world’s least-likely drug mule, an old white guy who never breaks the speed limit. As grim as the above might sound, it’s also a spry, funny, moving film that never heads in the direction in which it looks like it’s about to head, kind of like its protagonist.
Eastwood plays Earl Stone, first seen in 2005 as a dapper, smiling, bow tie–clad, Peoria-based cultivator of delicate flowers who’s the life of the regional daylily convention, even if attending it means missing out on the wedding of his daughter (Alison Eastwood, Clint’s daughter).
Cut to 2017, and Earl’s smiling no more. The internet has devastated his business, leading the bank to foreclose on him. And neither his daughter nor her mother Mary (Dianne Wiest) will talk to him, even though his granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga) would love to have grandpa back in her life. Believing that money might help him make amends, or at least keep him off the street, Earl finds himself open to a new business opportunity when approached by one of his granddaughter’s shadier acquaintances.
Soon he’s making runs from Illinois to Texas and back again—and mostly loving it. The Mule plays like a film that’s just waiting to turn into a feature-length version of the final act of Goodfellas, one filled with paranoid energy, near misses, and unbearable tension. But Eastwood, reuniting here with Gran Torino writer Nick Schenk, has other plans. Instead, it’s a mostly leisurely excursion through the middle of America, the moral murkiness of the drug trade, and a pitiless economy that leaves men like Earl without a safety net as they enter their 90s. The journey finds Earl breaking down the defenses of everyone he meets. In one scene, his drug contacts scowl at him menacingly. A few runs later, Earl’s asking about a nephew’s health like they were old pals. He wins their affection without really seeming to try that hard, even if they sometimes have to remind him that casual racism went out of style a long time ago. (There are shades of Gran Torino in those moments, but the film treats it less as a central feature of his character than another quirk revealing him as out of touch with the world. There’s probably more to unpack here, but the film’s interests mostly lie elsewhere.)
Family, on the other hand, is another matter entirely. The film underscores Earl’s long history of neglect a little too forcefully at times, giving us multiple scenes to remind us of his failures as a father and husband. But the moments that make clear he’s finally starting to face up to those failings after a lifetime of running away from them help make this one of Eastwood’s best performances.
So does his willingness to let Earl look and act like an old man, stooped posture, veiny hands, and all. Playing a man a few years older than himself, there’s not a lot of ego to what Eastwood does here. (Well, maybe there’s a bit: Earl has not one but two ménages à trois with much younger women over the course of the film, though he does complain about his need for heart medicine in one of them.) Earl often wears the not-quite-comprehending look of a senior citizen who’s lost touch with how the world works, which he is. But that same look can transform in a flash into the famous Eastwood scowl. Earl knows when to play tough, when to play dumb, and when to crack a joke. He may not get smartphones, but he gets people.
That extends to those pursuing him. Taking the backseat to Eastwood for much of the film, Bradley Cooper plays Colin Bates, a DEA agent who, with a partner played by Michael Peña, spends much of the film pursuing the unknown driver who’s become a fearsome cartel’s go-to guy for moving increasingly large quantities of cocaine. When they meet, late in the film, Earl sizes him up after a few exchanges and sees in Bates’ own dedication to his career a reflection of the same carelessness that’s left him alienated and alone at his age. The road only stretches so far until it reaches a dead end.
Sometimes it takes years to see those coming, however. And maybe sometimes you don’t care. The Mule sends Earl toward a reckoning, but until then it lets him have the time of his life, singing along to Dean Martin and Hank Snow in a luxurious new pickup, enjoying the Midwest’s finest pulled-pork sandwich joints, and becoming a local hero when he uses his ill-gotten loot to rebuild the local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. He’s deprived no more of all the pleasure money can buy, and wonders, maybe too late, if it might not be enough, if he’s left his best self behind him someplace he can never return.