MOVIE REVIEW

Clint Eastwood's deeply personal 'The Mule' considers what's important in life

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Acting in a movie at 88 is not out of the question, and neither is directing one. But both directing yourself and acting in a major studio release at that advanced age is next door to unheard of. Until Clint Eastwood decided to give it a try.

In "The Mule" Eastwood plays a character based on a man roughly his age, a real-life drug mule named Leo Sharp whose exploits defy belief. 

Called "a one man cocaine fountain" by Sam Dolnick in the New York Times feature the film is based on, Sharp was a top mover for the feared Sinaloa cartel before he was sentenced at age 90 for transporting more than 1,000 pounds of narcotics during a career that lasted nearly a decade.

Though playing this man, renamed Earl Stone, may sound like a bit of a stunt, it is anything but. In fact, "The Mule," told in Eastwood's classic leisurely yet streamlined style, ends up a surprise in a number of ways.

For one thing, though the feeling sneaks up on you, "The Mule" has an unexpected emotional kick. That's because in subject and execution it plays as personal as anything the filmmaker has done.

It starts with the fact that while it's one thing to act old, it's something else entirely to actually be old, and Eastwood expertly exploits the difference here. Never an actor who worried if he looked good on screen — "I've never pictured myself as the guy on the white horse or wearing the white hat on the mighty steed," he said when "Unforgiven" came out — Eastwood ignores vanity completely as Earl Stone.

No prosthetics are necessary, no artificial lines need to be added to the face. Though Earl is undoubtedly resourceful, he is also fragile and unsteady, perhaps the first character Eastwood has ever played whose health and well-being we worry about.

As written by Nick Schenk, who also wrote 2009's "Gran Torino," the last film Eastwood both starred in and directed, Earl is once again a politically incorrect anachronism, a dinosaur who has no use for the internet and has never even heard of texting.

A resident of Peoria, Ill., Earl is introduced in 2015 doing what he does best, growing and selling daylilies good enough to get him a top award at a national convention.

A dapper gent who loves to socialize, Earl doesn't have much connection to or feeling for his family. In fact, he can't even be bothered to attend the wedding of his daughter Iris (played by Eastwood's own daughter Alison.)

So when the internet kills his business, neither Iris nor Earl's ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest, effective as always) will even talk to him. Only granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) keeps him in the loop.

In fact, it's at Ginny's pre-wedding reception that Earl meets someone who throws him a lifeline. Hearing that he's out of work and that he drove nation-wide for decades selling daylilies out of his truck without ever getting a ticket, the man says he might have a job for him.

"You mean they pay people to just drive?" Earl says, incredulous. If you disregard the nature of the cargo, which Earl pretty much does, that turns out to be the case.
The all-business Mexicans who load his ancient flatbed truck with drugs are as incredulous as Earl is, but looking nothing like the classic drug mule turns out to be an occupational advantage.

Earl thinks this is going to be a one-time deal to get him out of a financial hole, but once he finds uses, often philanthropic, for his newfound wealth, the trips go on and on.

Smarter than he looks, Earl has no problem handling the occasional random traffic stop. The old man gets so successful, the cartel's fictional Mexican boss (Andy Garcia) invites him down to his enormous home.

"Who do you have to kill to get a place like this?" an impressed Earl jokes. "Many, many people," the boss evenly replies.

Though most of his trips are uneventful, with Earl fighting off boredom by singing standards like "On the Road Again" and "Cool Water" (a number Buster Scruggs also favors), at a certain point the clouds darken.

For one thing, forces at the cartel try to micromanage Earl, not an easy thing to do. More seriously, determined DEA agents played by Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena and Laurence Fishburne start to close in on the mule they know only as Tata, slang for grandpa.

But what really makes a difference is that changes to those around him force Earl to come to terms with the short shrift he's given his personal life. More than almost any Eastwood film you can name, "The Mule" ends up being about family, about regret, about what's important in life. 

It's difficult to watch the story unfold, to watch Eastwood's Earl interact with daughter Alison's Iris as well as several actors the filmmaker has worked with before, without sensing Eastwood himself might be concerned with these very issues.

Adding to that feeling is the dedication at the end of the final credits: "To Pierre and Richard," referring, as film buffs will know, to Pierre Rissient and Richard Schickel, both of whom recently died.

Rissient, a behind-the-scenes force in world cinema, was one of the first to recognize Eastwood's gifts as a director, while Time magazine critic and Eastwood biographer Schickel was a personal friend. They were, in a profound sense, part of Eastwood's family, and their inclusion here makes this story's inescapable emotional impact that much stronger.

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