THE MULE (2018, Clint Eastwood)
A fine companion piece to David Lowery’s THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN, Clint Eastwood’s THE MULE is another swan song for an American icon of the ’60s and ’70s, reckoning with a life of chasing a satisfaction just out of reach. (Both films even contain the hero’s love interest laughing when he tells her of his criminal behavior; a HEAT-style scene midway of cop and crook shooting the shit in a diner; and a climactic chase where the law closes down on the hero driving alone in his car through the American heartland).
In Lowery’s film, the themes were concerning the passage of time, aging, and the existentialist concerns of defining one’s identity through action. Eastwood, however, is dwelling on something more socio-political. Ever the Libertarian, Clint has made a paean to the virtues of personal accountability, and centered his own character’s arc around the ultimate acceptance of responsibility. Add to that a series of scenes that underscore the inescapable burden of having to answer to a boss no matter who you are (an informant, a DEA agent, a station chief, a henchman, etc.), and you’ve got a strong argument for Rand Paulism. Earl Stone in this movie is his own man, free from the shackles of big government and big corporations, yet he must still tackle the consequences of a crumbling economy that threaten both his hobby and his family. (Speaking of his family, there’s more than a little autobiography here: casting his daughter as his daughter is one thing, but Clint is a guy with at least 8 kids by 6 women, two of whom were his wives — it’s not surprising to see him open up to Dianne Wiest’s character like this, or to have two separate threesome scenes).
All of that stuff is perfectly fine — agree or disagree with his politics, it’s an argument well explored and intelligently supported; plus, Eastwood is having a blast playing Earl. It’s a real performance, not just an 88 year-old coot shuffling through his dialogue. But the DEA scenes feel far more rote and obligatory — little narrative function is achieved by spending so much time with the pursuit, so we’re left only to contemplate its meaning on a thematic level. Some of the superfluous material serves to explore identity politics — how Earl engages with blacks and Latinos, how police regard Hispanics, and how a Filipino objects to being called a Mexican. And while most of this is on the money, I’m not sure we needed the detour of the Latino motorist pulled over and freaking out about the scenario: it adds nothing to the story and thus feels the most didactic and self-indulgent. However, there’s a key detail that shows the passing of the torch from an elderly white movie star to a young Hispanic role player: throughout his career, Clint was the guy wearing the cowboy hat. In this scene, it’s that motorist, and it’s “statistically the five most dangerous minutes” of his life.