Beast of Burden
by Adam Nayman

The Mule
Dir. Clint Eastwood, U.S., Warner Bros.

The cinema of Clint Eastwood is made up of subcategories within subcategories. Any attempt to locate a common, binding tonal or thematic denominator in 41 feature films made across 47 years will yield only false positives. The sheer range of his interests—genre, combat, politics, masculinity, showbiz, sports, jazz, each and all as spokes on the wheel of American history—offers as good a case for the defense of Eastwood as a major American director than loftier proclamations about his aesthetics, methodology, or durability.

Stronger, I’d say: to be fair in praise of Clint’s restless, sometimes eccentric sensibility is to also acknowledge that the results have been anything but uniform. To claim otherwise is to commit to an auteurism indivisible from hero worship, a subject that itself comprises a fairly large subcategory within Eastwood’s body of work. Men of the hour are Eastwood’s type, and that he’s played so many of them over such a long period of time rather than employing surrogates is a phenomenon encompassing everything from practical and economic concerns (Clint was a box office draw before he was a filmmaker) to worthy creative impulses (he’s a very good actor) to a kind of narcissism that both resembles and transcends garden-variety vanity. Resembles it because it’s recognizably rooted within a tradition of director-star self-aggrandizement as old as Chaplin; transcends it because Eastwood’s popular persona (like that of Chaplin, or Welles, or Spike Lee, or Jackie Chan) is large and influential enough (in good and bad ways) to actually warrant analysis: call it Deconstructing Dirty Harry.

That said, the subcategory of films in which Eastwood plays a version of himself and/or “wrestles with his legacy” (something critics say, as he’d never put it that way) is among my least favorite, even as it contains the movie that I personally take to be his greatest: Unforgiven (1992), which also happens to be his most canonical film. Well, to echo that Academy-ratified classic, sometimes deserve’s actually got everything to do with it: superbly written and acted and boasting just enough of that ephemeral, extra-textual Clint-ness to put across its otherwise hugely generic (not a put-down) story of a retired gunslinger rousing himself for one last brutal but more or less morally justified killing spree (as ready-made a metaphor for filmmaking as Bronco Billy’s Wild West show or John Wilson’s elephant hunt), Unforgiven immediately went on the list with John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as a Western that played like gangbusters on a trusty old set of terms even as it set about revising them with real purpose and authority.

While Unforgiven probably would have been a strong movie with another actor in the role of William Munny, Eastwood’s deeply felt and skillfully self-deprecating performance—toppling haplessly off a horse at the age of 62—helped to put across both his hard-living character’s premature decrepitude and the idea of a real reckoning, both with a single career and the genre where it was forged. In the end, Unforgiven’s grave fable may have been an invitation, à la Ford, to print the legend, but with reservations—or maybe an asterisk. It’s not quite fair to say that what annoys me so much about Gran Torino and The Mule, both of which both occupy the aforementioned and increasingly crowded field of Eastwood-movies-about-Eastwood, is how they combine to affix their own asterisk to Unforgiven’s very title.

Forgiveness is absolutely the driving theme of Gran Torino, which many colleagues experienced as a profound meditation on racism and reconciliation in 21st century America, but which seemed to me to a largely laughable—if ultimately canny and commercially successful—attempt to leverage reactionary sentimentality against the unexpected but real respectability that its director experienced in the 2000s (to whores, politicians, and old buildings, we can add the creator of Every Which Way But Loose). By casting himself as a cranky, crafty, unapologetically racist Korean war vet who learns to respect his new Hmong neighbors in a dilapidated Detroit neighborhood, Eastwood got to play to one peanut gallery while convincing another that he was interrogating those attitudes and postures and his own complicity (on screen) in fostering them. The have-his-cake-and-eat-it-too masterstroke was reversing the enduring macho-pieta of Dirty Harry so that Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski is shot while prone and unarmed, adopting a Jesus Christ Pose as he dies for his (and his generation’s) sins, but without any blood on those wizened, outstretched hands.

Never mind that Nick Schenk’s script is so laboriously engineered, with its overdetermined symbology (i.e. the muscle car of the title is the American birthright earned by Walt’s new Hmong sidekick for learning to man up and accept playful racial slurs as the language of the land) and appalling, craven use of the gang-rape of a teenage girl to rouse the audience to disgust and the (anti)hero to his aforementioned martyrdom. Or that the heroic “late style” perceived by so many critics looked, at least to me, like it permitted a few more lazy/lousy first takes, especially from younger and/or untrained actors, than would seem strictly desirable. (This diffidence is less of an occupational hazard when your cast includes, say, Sean Penn and Tim Robbins). What I couldn’t abide about Gran Torino was the way that the honest, thorny self-examination of Unforgiven had mutated into something disconcertingly cute and calculate: a superficially provocative but ultimately safe and saleable commodity, tarnishing and varnishing its brand with the same broad, dripping brush.

In The Mule, Eastwood and Schenk are working with real-life material, and so the thing that was at once best and worst about Gran Torino—its posturing preposterousness, palpable from start to finishis off the table. What’s on offer instead is the slightly stranger-than-fiction account of Leonard Sharp, a World War II veteran and horticulturist who briefly became the most reliable driver for the Sinaloa drug cartel, ferrying hundreds of kilos of cocaine between Detroit and the Mexican border, an unfathomably lucrative side hustle that resulted in headlines and a three-year jail sentence, only one of which was served before Sharp’s death in 2015 at the age of 92.

This is a story worth telling, and Schenk and Eastwood have also zeroed in on the thing that makes it signify: that beneath the simultaneously incongruous and innocuous fable of the octogenarian drug mule lies a story about how whiteness functions as a force field. In this sense, The Mule works as a companion piece to Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, with the part of Mahershala Ali played by duffel bags packed with cocaine; in both films, the fact of the driver’s whiteness is what supposedly ensures the safety of his cargo through hostile, racial-profiling terrain. Where Green Book attempts to use its reverse-Driving Miss Daisy setup as a catalyst for reconciliation—to let the healing begin between Ali’s aloof pianist and Viggo Mortensen’s well-meaning goombah—The Mule characterizes Eastwood’s Sharp manqué Earl Stone as a guy who either didn’t get the memo about a post-racial America or doesn’t care. Less overtly than in Gran Torino—but no less intrinsically to the film’s designhe’s a figure of unrepentant political incorrectness. And, as the film has clearly been engineered to self-reflexive specifications, the tension between its observation of its hero’s relative ease in navigating a landscape that throws up roadblocks (literal and figurative) to visible minorities and its critique-cum-celebration of him as kind of stubbornly old-school (mulish?) folk hero is where we theoretically find the auteur “wrestling with his legacy.”

But if this is wrestling, it’s of the professional sort, the kind where the fights are fixed and the goal is to play to the crowd. The best scenes in The Mule, as when we see a team of DEA agents stop-and-frisk a terrified, compliant Latino driver while Earl hurtles on, blissfully undetected (the link between the two drivers being their Black SUVs), are well-observed but hardly revelatory, while the most irritating moments—like Earl’s encounter with an all-femme biker gang (“Thanks, dykes”) or his roadside assist of an African-American couple he refers to as “Negros”—reek of calculation. It’s not that I don’t believe these things would happen, but that they’ve been staged in a way that the people on the receiving end of Earl’s retrograde folksiness are granted neither believably aggrieved reactions nor much in the way of characterization beyond the same surface appearances by which Earl receives them. They’re easy.

To compare these encounters to similar episodes in David Lynch’s superficially similar, fact-based road movie The Straight Story—a masterpiece slandered in some lefter-than-thou corners as right-wing propaganda, but which holds up as a work of beautiful humanism 20 years on—is to not only see very different approaches to dramaturgy but also the conjoined strengths and weaknesses of Eastwood’s screen presence. I happen to think that The Straight Story is as personal to Lynch as The Mule is to Eastwood, but Richard Farnsworth’s performance as Alvin Straight is its own entity rather than a veiled alter ego—and his career-character-actor humility gives his star turn a becoming modesty that lifts the other actors. Because Eastwood is such a giant star, even his physical frailty has heft, and the other performers become props off of which to score laughs, which are, lazily, of the “all in good fun” variety. However clear-eyed the film’s vision may be about Earl’s whiteness protecting him in his job, it turns myopic in these exchanges, which ring false, if not callow.

The disparity between Eastwood’s size and legacy as a performer and the comparatively small stature of the actors around him truly registers in what is supposed to be the film’s dramatic center: the strained relationship between Earl and his family, especially his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and estranged adult daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood), both of whom resent him for the decades of indifference and absence (and, it’s implied, infidelity) he spent on the horticulturalist circuit before the bottom fell out of his business and he hooked up with the cartel. What the film tells us— often very prosaically, since Schenk is that kind of writer—is that Earl never cared enough for the women in his life, and it hurt them to be rendered as afterthoughts. What we see, though, are a pair of characters who exist solely to tug at Earl’s conscience and consciousness, granted little additional dimension—which strands the actors in the process. Similarly, the DEA agent played by Bradley Cooper, who becomes Earl’s dogged yet weirdly sympathetic pursuer (as Eastwood himself was in A Perfect World) is there to serve as the protagonist’s younger, similarly principled, if more overtly upstanding, double—one who would be wise to regard his quarry as a cautionary tale lest he contaminate his own potential domestic bliss.

The idea, then, is that even as Earl is furtively joyriding around the Midwest, playing Robin Hood and Don Juan in the process (he’s unfailingly generous with his ill-gotten gains, and, as the kids like to say, he fucks, lest we somehow doubt the character and his interpreter’s virility) he’s also meditating on his sins. Not that his complicity in the drug trade or congenital dick-swinging are looked at remotely critically. On the second point: I fully cop to rolling my eyes at the repeated shots of Earl being swarmed by much younger, semi-and-fully naked partners, as well as at the “Daddy”-style plaudits subsequently offered up on Twitter, and I say this as an avowed fan of Dirty Grandpa. At this point, I take no more pleasure in Eastwood’s avowals of his own horniness than I do Woody Allen’s, and Allen—whose own remarkable prolificness, insistence on self-representation, and essentially reactionary sensibility make him a fascinating point of comparison for his fellow 1970s culture warrior and jazz aficionado—is maybe even a wee bit more forthright, on average, in holding himself to account through his onscreen avatars. For instance, I couldn’t really abide Allen’s Irrational Man—the one where Joaquin Phoenix plays the philosophy professor who decides to enact Crime and Punishment in his small university townbut its evocation of a grossly withholding, murderously guilty mindset felt honest. Here, acting with eyes downcast opposite his actual daughter, Eastwood makes a half-hearted show of artistically mediated personal atonement, knowing full well that the shape of the film will ultimately vindicate both the character and the actor inhabiting him, like Gran Torino before it.

If it seems like I’m harping on this aspect of The Mule to the exclusion of talking about its storyline or craftsmanship or entertainment value, it’s because I don’t have much to say about those things. This indifference may be my own personal Eastwood blind spot or else a refusal to don the They Live shades through which others seem to view his 21st-century output. With a few significant exceptions (The Bridges of Madison County, Million Dollar Baby, and parts of American Sniper), I’ve never really registered the supposed mastery of Eastwood’s post-Unforgiven movies, and found The Mule alternately flat and slapdash, more carefully shaped conceptually than on the level of composition or editing; Yves Bélanger’s cinematography eschews Tom Stern’s long, sculptural shadows without adding much identity of its own. My skepticism in this department might be why I was so weirdly beguiled by The 15:17 to Paris, which a friend called “a Clint Eastwood movie for people who sort of hate Clint Eastwood movies,” but is more accurately described as an act of doubling-and-then-tripling down on a set of stylistic and ideological presets to the point of abstraction. It’s a supremely weird and disorienting experience, and, I think, the better of his two 2018 movies.

The film has undeniable pleasures: Earl gruffly singing a song about gonorrhea under his breath to pass the time on the highway is funny, and there’s always something tender about seeing icons in their dotage, even if Clint has played this latter card several times now. Still, I will have to cede the sensation of being mightily entertained or moved to others, because the intersections of its two professional plotlines—Earl’s trips and the DEA’s efforts to track him—are so on the nose, and because the melodrama of Earl’s self-sacrificing return to Mary’s deathbed (where she of course tells him he’s a wonderful guy in the end) is so similarly perfunctory, I can’t help but focus on the inner meanings. As it’s that same stuff that’s leading some critics to perceive the monogrammed greatness of a magnum opus instead of a simple job of work, it hardly seems like such subtext-hunting is out of bounds. The coincidental timing of the passing of Sondra Locke, who’d be at the top of the list in taking issue with the behavior slyly allegorized therein, and the movie’s release, has only emboldened this line of analysis, and that has to cut both ways. You can’t say that The Mule gains in resonance because of what we know about its maker’s past and then call bullshit-piety on anyone who thinks it soft-pedals those same problematics. For the record, I don’t think you can or should separate the art from the artist, but I do think we can pull our heads out of the latter’s ass once in a while.

Because The Mule isn’t as histrionic as Gran Torino, it doesn’t make a comparable fetish of Earl’s ultimate penance. I much prefer the relative understatement of Eastwood’s final lines, uttered in a courtroom that the film quickly abandons when it could just as easily have made a third-act home there. “I’m guilty,” Earl admits to the assembled crowd, in effect throwing himself on the mercy of the court; his admission at once corners the argument against him and suggests we either suspend judgment or exercise leniency because a lesson has been learned. Perhaps expecting true humility from Clint Eastwood is foolish, but the alternative of accepting such grandiloquent modesty—especially in the absence of much movie-going pleasure—doesn’t feel like a workable solution either.

In the spirit of Earl’s confession, I’m as guilty of auteur worship as anybody else, and as susceptible to the rhetorical jiu-jitsu of recuperating a beloved favorite’s flaws or failures either as strengths or tautological illustrations: Kelly Reichardt’s defeatism suits our defeated moment; the Coen brothers are mean because the universe is too. Which is why, as The Mule locked into its final, admittedly lovely crane shot over a greenhouse of flowers—a move deeply embedded both in Eastwood’s directorial vocabulary and the systematized, classical American cinema he so loves and of which he remains such a solid, stolid practitioner—I found myself thinking, strangely, of a film I’d seen a few days earlier: Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, a hyper-steroidal bit of directorial flexing coded as an inventory of bad personal and professional conduct (it is, in every way, Lars’ Deconstructing Harry). Like The Mule, it’s a movie awash in themes of recidivism, culpability, and criminal behavior hiding in plain sight, and, weirdly enough, it also pivots on a horticultural metaphor: the title character’s childhood memory of field workers taking scythes to long grass, an image entwining the natural and death with all the ironic gravitas you’d expect from the Notorious LvT.

In The House That Jack Built’s imaginative fantasia, these blades are used to prune no less bucolic a space than the Elysian Fields, which Von Trier’s serial killer alter ego can only glimpse from his new home in Hell. “We don’t have access,” explains his guide, unhelpfully. The Mule’s coda offers up a slightly different, intriguing paradox, with Earl confined to prison yet free to stop and smell the flowers any time he wants. Both endings make sense, but the uneasy catharsis I felt at the conclusion of Von Trier’s absurd but, to me, genuinely thoughtful slasher-slash-essay film came from the fact that there is real doubt and self-loathing in the mix. The Mule simply proffers obstinacy as grace.