No one plays Clint Eastwood better than Clint, but many people could direct a Clint film better than Clint himself. The strengths of Eastwood as actor — a steely isolation and an unremitting eye for the right profile — became the weaknesses of Eastwood the director. The actor’s ability to slow time and stop the action so that everyone waits for his next squint, a trick exploited so cleverly by Sergio Leone, became the director’s solipsism and self-regard.
As Leone recognized, Eastwood’s gnomic emotions and grunted speech were an asset to the spare machismo of the Western. The Westerns in which Eastwood auto-directed as lead actor remain excellent exercises in genre: High Plains Drifter (1973), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Pale Rider (1985), Unforgiven (1992). As an actor, Eastwood knew his limits. In Every Which Way But Loose (1978), he allowed himself to be acted off the screen by an orang utang called Clyde.
As a director, Eastwood always feels lucky and always has one more in the chamber. The Mule is his 38th film as a director. As in his revenge Westerns, Eastwood is nothing if not dogged and hard-working: High Plains Grafter. Indeed, it’s impressing how consistent he remains. For good and bad, moments in The Mule reminded me of his directorial debut, Play Misty For Me (1971).
It’s refreshing to see an actor playing someone older than themselves for a change. Eastwood is now in his 89th year, but his character, Earl Stone, is already 90. Earl is a selfish grunter, a Korea vet who neglected his wife and daughter, and, this being an Eastwood film, a champion horticulturalist beloved by all except his wife and daughter. Earl’s lilies are the toast of Peoria, but then the internet comes to Illinois. Online lily-dealers drive Earl out of business, and the bank forecloses on his home. So Earl, who has a clean license and always enjoyed the road, becomes a drug mule, running shipments of cocaine from El Paso to Chicago, and using the cash to fix up the local VFW post and pay for his granddaughter’s wedding.
Eastwood can do comedy. In Two Mules For Sister Sara (1970), he and Shirley MacLaine pulled off that most difficult of cross-genre pieces, the action-comedy Western with nuns and dynamite. There are plenty of wry laughs in The Mule, because wry laughs is what wisdom-filled, lovable old geezers like Clint get to have when they meet ‘Negroes’, ‘dykes’ and pistol-wielding Mexicans.
There is, as usual with Clint, an excellent soundtrack. Eastwood knows his music. He introduced Roberta Flack’s version of ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ to the public by using it in Play Misty For Me, and his Charlie Parker biopic Bird (1988) is as good a jazz film as could be made. The deployment of Charles Earland’s Hammond-driven version of ‘More Today Than Yesterday’ as Earl bounces along the highway is perfect.
But there is, as so often, an excess of self-pity. Clint loves Clint, and he feels sorry for Earl. Perhaps this is why he shows so many gyrating bottoms and g-strings when Earl goes to a party at the Mexican drug lord’s house. The Man With No Name has become The Man With No Taste.
Peter Bogdanovich relates that when he was directing Barbara Streisand in the screwball tribute What’s Up Doc (1972), Streisand kept suggesting that he allow her a ‘moment’ in each scene. Bogdanovich resisted, and restricted her moments to a side profile when the lovers finally kiss, and a full-screen, maximum Babs moment at the end. Clint gives himself too many moments, and Earl too many chances. You know something is going wrong because the music changes. Suddenly, it’s all synths, muted trumpet and tearful reunions. We don’t care enough about how Earl’s late-life career change will play in Peoria.
There is pathos enough in the sight of Eastwood as a geriatric outlaw, shuffling, skeletal, and gnarled amid the gun-waving killers. The sentimentality deflates a heavy and not unpleasant atmosphere of doom. The payloads and stakes rise with each run. The ambitious DEA officer (Bradley Cooper) gets closer, and we know the cartel killers are getting more dangerous, because their facial hair is becoming more complex. The supporting cast are strong too, with Andy Garcia as the drug lord, Laurence Fishburne as Cooper’s supervisor, Dianne Wiest as Earl’s estranged wife Mary. But Clint shoots himself in the foot by plucking our heartstrings when he should be shooting someone in the gut.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.