This Is The Movie Where Clint Eastwood Most Deeply Explores Himself


In an unprecedented feat in Hollywood history, Clint Eastwood has continued to star in and direct feature films into his late 80s and early 90s. With the recent announcement of his supposed final film, Juror #2, it appears as though the icon is preparing to embark on his last dance as an artist. Having frequently engaged with his public persona through the screen throughout his career, Eastwood has especially dissected himself at an overtly personal level over the last five years. Before Cry Macho in 2021, the defining late-period meditative film of his career will be The Mule, the 2018 film that stands as the truest expression of the beloved movie star and filmmaker.

‘The Mule’ Is Driven by Clint Eastwood’s Undeniable Movie Star Presence

The Mule, which miraculously grossed nearly $175 million worldwide upon release, is based on a true story of an elderly horticulturist, Earl Stone (Eastwood), who resorts to being a courier for a drug cartel as he faces foreclosure and the collapse of his familial relationships. The story of an innocent person who is perceived to be forced into the criminal underworld is a pretty timeless one that we have seen done many times before. While upstanding to the law, these protagonists, including Earl, have a troubled personal life by their own undoing. Their contributions to the criminal underworld begin as fairly innocuous until they are slowly pulled into the horror of this lifestyle. Lurking over this story is law enforcement; DEA agents played by Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña are running into dead ends and oblivious to the truth hiding in plain sight.

On the surface, The Mule is hampered by an unoriginal premise with overdone dramatic beats. The film’s elevator pitch and the aid of Eastwood’s face on the poster certainly sold tickets. In saying that, its meditative quality will cause it to last in interest for years. Disguised as a generic drug trafficking thriller, The Mule is humbly a dissection of the stardom and persona of Clint Eastwood. Ever since his Best Picture-winning revisionist Western Unforgiven, the actor-director has continued making movies that grapple with his image as a star and public figure, notably Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino. As a movie-star showcase, Eastwood doesn’t disappoint. His presence is solely responsible for this film’s value in a manner that could not be replicated if he were only directing. The first act requires a convincingly charismatic figure who is the life of the party at florist events and business engagements. As a drug courier, Earl needs to carry the aura of a noble grandfather to the traffickers who hired him.

At the remarkable age of 88, Eastwood reminded audiences that he still has the same magnetic movie-star gracefulness that defined his illustrious six-decade career. A healthy portion of the film consists of Eastwood driving alone along the freeway to his drop-off site and singing along to the radio. Whenever the film transitions to other plots, such as the stiff DEA investigation of the drug cartel, one just wants to return to sitting right beside him in his car. In addition to being the man of the hour at parties, as exemplified by the famous scene of him having a threesome, Eastwood certifies himself as the movie star to end all movie stars.

‘The Mule’ as an Allegory for Eastwood’s Career

The Mule was criticized upon release for a lack of dramatic tension and urgency. Most films about crime and the drug trade would play for cheap thrills and lean into a rigid good versus evil showdown, but Eastwood’s film is far more interested in a meditative character study. However, the contradicting dynamic of what this film is expected to be against what is put on screen is a commentary on the public perception of Clint Eastwood. Throughout his career, the star has been dinged with an inaccurate representation as an enabler of toxic masculinity. Some viewers want Eastwood to play derivatives of Harry Callahan in every instance in which he appears on the big screen. For as charismatic as he is in this role, Eastwood rejects any preconceived notions as a traditionally masculine idol. A deeper reading of the text of The Mule is the juxtaposition of Earl being a florist who resorts to crime serves as an allegory to Eastwood’s career. Much of the public perceives him and his filmography as solely an outlaw icon of unbridled masculinity, but in reality, Eastwood is a soft, gentle individual whose films are crafted with much more nuance and meditative contemplation than he is given credit for.


Eastwood’s Career Evolution Is Realized in ‘The Mule’

Speaking to his nuance, Eastwood’s career arc is layered beyond imagination. Whenever audiences think they just witnessed a capstone film of his, such as Unforgiven or Gran Torino, he returns to the screen more evolved and contemplative. The character threads of Eastwood’s Walk Kowalski in Gran Torino, a bigoted Korean War veteran who learns to move past the hatred in his heart, can be seen in Earl Stone too. The character embodies the “get off my lawn” mantra used to describe elderly folks baffled by the culture and lifestyle pushed by younger generations. Smartphones and the religious devotion to them by young people is a point of fixation by Earl throughout the film. In one scene, he helps a young couple change a tire on the side of the road and is disgusted that the man is searching online for what to do in the event of a flat tire. These moments of cultural collision are not designed to champion the good old days. Instead, the joke is directed toward Earl. Eastwood’s self-awareness of his age helps The Mule be quietly one of the funniest films he has ever made.

An artist creating as many reflective, metatextual examinations of oneself as Eastwood could be seen as vain but the legendary actor-director presents his work with such humility and poise that it never feels too self-indulgent. The loose structure of the film immerses the viewer in simultaneously reflecting on the small things in life. In The Mule, the value of eating the finest pulled pork sandwich in the country is treated with the same prominence as shipping a stash of cocaine. While he was driven to the job for financial purposes, Earl discovers a simple beauty in traveling the countryside and singing along to his car radio thanks to his illicit means. All in all, The Mule is a worthy character study of Eastwood’s screen persona and cultural legacy, swiftly balancing how he views himself and his public-constructed image. Clint Eastwood has proven that age is merely a number, as he continues to stand alone as the most interesting movie star audiences have ever had the joy to watch.

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