Forty-seven years in the director’s chair with almost forty films to show for it, and thank God that Clint Eastwood’s not done yet. Some pictures aren’t as good as others, to be sure, but there’s hardly a stinker in Eastwood’s rose garden. (The “hardly” stands for Invictus.) To those who’ve dedicated their lives to crunching numbers, Eastwood prides himself on bringing ‘em in on time and under budget. So why is Warner Bros. doing its best to put the cart before The Mule?
Once upon a time, Clint Eastwood opened his pictures with rippleless overhead shots, observed from a distance to establish time and place. Seeing how Eastwood’s latest finds him playing a horticulturist, it only seems fitting that the 88-year-old’s eye-level positioning of his camera plants us in a flower bed approximately six feet above ground. If the amount of emotional damage he’d already inflicted on two generations of women were any indication, Earl Stone (Eastwood) was always one to put work before family. Ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) are working overtime to avoid a hat-trick by keeping Earl as far as possible from granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga).
By his own admission, Earl was never a “plan B kinda’ guy.” As a businessman, he had the makings of a great agriculturist. Ten lean years following a Gold Medal win for his green thumb, and Earl was no longer capable of popping for a round of drinks on the house. This all changed at Ginny’s wedding, when a public shaming by Mary led to an encounter with a stranger bearing news of part-time employment.
We follow Earl on a dozen runs, a tire shop in El Paso fronting as a home base for the drug operation with a job opening. What began as a heedful exchange of introductory glances between a dirty windshield and an equally grimy garage door portal blossoms into a chummy relationship between co-workers. Like Ben Shockley before him — The Gauntlet will forever have a soft spot in my heart — Earl gets the job done and does what he’s told. Even though he’s pushing ninety, it’s hard to believe that Earl initially had no clue as to what’s inside the duffel bags placed in the bed of his pickup. Surely a guy like Earl watches network TV.
Earl’s work ethic and spotless driving record don’t go unnoticed. Cartel kingpin Laton (Andy Garcia) is looking to make him his number one driver. But Laton’s not the only one with an eye cast in Earl’s direction. A pair of Chicago DEA agents (Bradley Cooper and Richard Pena) are on the lookout for a mysterious mule responsible for smuggling a monthly average of 10 kilos of cocaine across Illinois state lines. The flow of conflicting yet never-snagging parallel storylines finds storyteller Eastwood at the top of his game.
Eastwood and Earl have lived long enough for both to have lost their filters. (In Earl’s case, Mary claims that he never had a filter to lose.) No longer behind the wheel of a Gran Torino, a lot of cranky Walt Kowalski finds its way into Eastwood’s Earl, particularly his simple-minded view of race relations. Stopping to help a couple fix a flat, red-stater Earl still relies on “Negro folks” as a convivial way of addressing African-Americans. Would Eastwood risk alienating Trump supporters by casting one of their own in as ignorantly truthful a light as this?
In the past, Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions has generally meant healthy grosses for Warner Bros. The reluctance on the part of the studio to promote this picture is tantamount to building a wall around Clint Eastwood. For starters, this is the only Eastwood picture in memory not to be screened ahead of time for the press. Why the flop-sweat? Did the studio fear that Earl talking to an empty passenger’s seat would remind audiences of Eastwood’s similarly one-sided chat with a chair? Would all this talk of smuggling drugs across borders and Mexican cartels come across as pro-Trump, thus cutting box office dollars in half? Did Warner Bros. really think that Eastwood, a director known for his objectivity and cool, would be dumb enough to sabotage one of his pictures by following in the spoor of Trump supporters?
If Eastwood’s greatest sin is voting Republican, I suggest we cut him some slack by separating the art from the artist. If anything, the road to greatness begins with our President manning up and following in Earl’s footsteps. For those sincerely looking to turn things around, we suggest strapping Trump to a chair and giving him the Clockwork Orange with The Mule. Good luck making it happen.
Eastwood owes the American filmgoing public one thing. His job was to make a great movie again. To that extent, he has not only lived up to his part of the bargain, he’s surpassed it.