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‘The Mule’ Rules: Clint Eastwood’s Weird, Fascinating Refutation of His Own Myth

In his 40th film as a director—a strange and sometimes hilarious drama about a horticulturist who becomes a drug runner for a cartel—the 88-year-old Eastwood finds a new twist on his legend

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

This has been a terribly confusing year for Clint Eastwood diehards. He’s already responsible for one film in 2018, The 15:17 to Paris, that I found to be one of the most unwatchable movies from a major studio this decade. That dramatization of the men who halted a 2015 terrorist attack on a train starred the real-life saviors from the event, and had all the dramatic tension of a company softball game. But it has its defenders, predictably. Because Clint-ites, a sect of which I attend the occasional prayer service, are a rare breed among overcommitted movie fans—the kind of cinephiles who valorize mythmaking and old Hollywood austerity and willingly overlook simple flaws like flat acting or awkwardly staged dramatic scenarios. That’s because, to this learned and fervent crowd of observers, Eastwood’s directing style is rigid and axiomatic. “Whenever you’re ready,” he famously says to his actors on his set, rather than the customary “Action!”—it’s a sly signal of his laid-back but tactical approach to moviemaking. Eastwood rarely shoots more than two takes of any given scene and never rehearses, instead favoring a professional’s strategy, workmanlike and efficient. He wants to get in early and wrap with time for a leisurely lunch. He isn’t lazy—just look at how much he works—he’s effective. Eastwood is 88 years old, and with that efficacy he has bought himself time and a great number of films that dot his legacy. He’s appeared in more than 60 feature films and directed 37 of them. Some of these movies are masterpieces, texts for future generations about the strengths and weakness of the American masculine ideal, examinations of conflict and self-doubt, treatises on friendship and the importance of work in one’s life. Some, like 15:17, are crap.

His latest, The Mule, is, in its extremely odd way, a pinnacle for Eastwood as a director. It’s not his best (that’d be Unforgiven) or his most impressive (Letters From Iwo Jima) or his most iconic (The Outlaw Josey Wales) or even his most fun (I’ve always had a soft spot for A Perfect World). But it is his absolute weirdest. And it does something no other Eastwood-directed movie has ever done: It makes him the sucker. This movie is based on the real-life story of Leo Sharp, a retired horticulturist who, in his 80s, takes up a gig as a courier for the Sinaloa drug cartel, driving across state lines carrying illicit materials illegally. It’s so ludicrous, it wouldn’t make it past Final Draft if it weren’t true. And it’s not difficult to see, in part, what Eastwood finds appealing about the story of a man who has neglected his family for years tending to his flowers and his nursery and the life of flower glamour that the film presents in a zippy prologue. (Did you know there are flower awards?)

Eastwood’s Earl Stone, despite his age, agenda, and a rash of clueless, insensitive comments (the phrase “You’re welcome, dykes” is uttered in this movie), is one of the most jovial, blasé characters he has ever played. In The Mule, Eastwood sings, frequently; dances with women half his age; is serviced by two cartel prostitutes; saves a VFW with drug money; buys his granddaughter’s love by way of cosmetology school tuition; and makes amends with his dying ex-wife by singing her a Spiral Starecase song. Through a cracked lens, he’s a hero. But also a goof, the doddering comic relief and the rube thrust into a world of newfangled cellphones and cocaine drop points and DEA sting operations and too-trusting highway patrolmen. This is the kind of late-career curveball that I live for—think Al Pacino in Danny Collins or Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man. At times, The Mule feels like a subversion of Eastwood’s mysterious antihero figure—The Man With No Shame—and at others, it feels like a sketch buried inside a particularly convoluted episode of Mr. Show. Which is to say, The Mule rules.

The reason for that is plain: Once it becomes clear that Eastwood is more interested in the dippy version of the character, the one who can’t stop crooning Dean Martin and Hank Snow tunes to himself while being tailed by cartel bad guys, this movie realizes a slightly incomprehensible giddiness that is rare. The movie’s weird. There’s a whole subplot about Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña’s Chicago-based DEA agents hunting down Eastwood to get their big break out of the Windy City that barely even registers. Oscar winner Dianne Wiest is in this movie as a woman with no patience, until she dies. Eastwood’s real-life daughter, Alison, came out of acting retirement to work with her father again and perhaps self-consciously embody some of the film’s themes playing his on-screen daughter. Taissa Farmiga, a fine actress best known for her work in American Horror Story, was clearly not ready for Eastwood’s one-take mercilessness. It’s all part and parcel of a movie that seems to be operating on its own time, with its own goals somewhere far beyond the tropes of boring-ass Hollywood. It’s a Clint-ite experience writ large; come for the auteur, stay for the Uh wut? Where 15:17 was a movie with a purpose, strident and serious about men who did something meaningful, The Mule is about some selfish geezer who never considers the meaning of his actions, not even when lives are at stake. He’s a schnook. A jerk. A mule. What a gift.

My favorite Eastwood movie of the past decade is Sully, and it’s not particularly close. And that similarly true-life tale would make an interesting double feature with The Mule. They’re both about aging men at a crossroads, financially and emotionally, unwound by the vagaries of a changing world—one responds with a heroic act, the other with villainy masquerading as old-coot ignorance. Tom Hanks’s unfussy work as Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is one of the best performances of his late period, no affectation or actorly strain other than that shock of white hair. Hanks is perfect for Eastwood’s one-take minimalism, a movie star who barely has to crinkle his nose to draw you in. And Eastwood himself is winning in The Mule, smiling a lot more than usual, his trademark scowl registering at a minimum; he’s rascally almost. He doesn’t transform, but he’s different.

The other movie I was reminded of while watching was The Old Man and the Gun, the deeply pleasurable Robert Redford vehicle from earlier this year about an aging bank robber. Where that movie uses the precision of a safecracker when it comes to Redford’s iconography—a smile, an irascible remark, and a tuft of majestic hair—The Mule looks to drive a pickup truck over Eastwood’s stately, grave reputation. Both films could be the final acts of two unmistakable legends. Their similarities are striking: both started in television, both got their big breaks in films in the mid-’60s, both maneuvered their notoriety as respected actors and box office draws into plays for producing and directing power. Both are highly political and activist members of the Hollywood community, but both also decamped to the outskirts to build kingdoms of their own design (Sundance and Carmel). Both have aged gracefully, never fully evacuating their stardom. Both are known to have healthy egos but also be gentlemen. Both work on their own time. And both may now be done. The difference is, Redford would never make The Mule. I didn’t know Eastwood had it in him either. I’m glad he got around to it.