It goes without saying that Clint Eastwood is one of the great film legends of our time; the 88-year-old filmmaker has made a career out of nearly every aspect of the industry, delivering classic performances and directing great films. I love seeing lifelong filmmakers who continue to make inspired films, and Eastwood’s latest The Mule is a self aware and emotionally layered piece of work. Perhaps it doesn’t quite rank among Unforgiven and Mystic River as one of Eastwood’s best work, but it’s about as perfect a film as it could be for what Eastwood is trying to accomplish at this point in his career.
Based on a true story, the film follows kindly flower gardener Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood), a man who’s spent his life skipping out on his family. Stone soon gets a new opportunity when he become a drug runner for a Mexican drug cartel, and attempts to rectify his mistakes through his newfound funds. This is a terrific character, and Eastwood reaps all the drama and comedy out of it; Stone is witty, charming, and self deprecating, with Eastwood injecting some great one-liners, but the emotional core of a man who was afraid to face his own family really hits home.
As a director, Eastwood sets a rhythm that hooks the audience into the story early on, and while the setup is slightly rushed and the transition from gardener to mule is quick, its effective in showing why Stone makes the choices he does. The ending is also truly terrific; the last act, in which Stone is confronted with all of his choices, both recent and in the past, features some truly phenomenal acting that relies heavily on the central performance.
The ensemble is all there to support Eastwood, and while the familial elements are where the film’s heart lies, Bradley Cooper’s DEA agent offers a terrific antagonist for the story as he follows the clues and ultimately faces Eastwood in a confrontation. There scenes are among the best of the film, as two men with very little in common are able to talk about the importance of work and family priorities in a stressful work environment.
So much of The Mule is self reflective, and one of the reasons it ranks among Eastwood’s most recent triumphs is how personal it is; in the same way Unforgiven was a deconstruction of the American western, this is a deconstruction of the American worker that has a lot to say about sacrifices made and whether the ends justify the means. It’s a touching, quirky, and often thrilling slice of life from one of the great filmmakers of all-time, and a thoroughly fascinating sample of Eastwood’s career. Grade: B+