Clint Eastwood has truly and finally become our new John Wayne, in the sense that how you feel about him, pro or con, is political by default. What both his diehard fans and most vehement detractors tend to miss is that Eastwood is and has always been more complicated, more self-aware, than either his characters or his public persona. “The Mule,” the 88-year-old filmmaker’s 40th film as director and 91st as an actor, isn’t top-drawer Eastwood, but, as usual, there’s more going on under its hood than almost anyone wants to admit.
Working from a flat-footed script by Eastwood discovery Nick Schenk (“Gran Torino”) and based on a true story covered by The New York Times in 2014, thestar plays Earl Stone, an aged Illinois horticulturist who’s a hale fellow well met to everyone but his family, who’ve had enough after decades of neglect. Dianne Wiest makes her too-few scenes count as Earl’s ex-wife, Eastwood’s real-life daughter Alison plays daughter Iris, and Taissa Farmiga is granddaughter Ginny, who’s the only one still on Earl’s side.
Essentially, Earl’s a slightly more socialized version of Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” codger, and, like his relatives, we’re meant to have mixed emotions toward him. After the Internet ruins his day-lily business, the bank forecloses on Earl’s house and he’s open to the temptations of a Mexican drug cartel that is seeking drivers who don’t look like they’re ferrying 100 pounds of cocaine from El Paso to Chicago. The money’s good, and Earl has never been one to trouble much with scruples anyway.
Rather than a suspenseful action exercise with volleys of gunfire, “The Mule” is more of a quixotic character picaresque, a distant relative of the recent Robert Redford farewell, “The Old Man & the Gun,” without being nearly as well written. Eastwood’s “American Sniper” star, Bradley Cooper, has the role of the young-buck DEA agent chasing the unknown driver (Laurence Fishburne is Cooper’s boss and Michael Peña his partner). The local cartel hoods start out as threatening cartoons but soon become slightly more shaded cartoons, trading jokes and family anecdotes with the old cuss they call “Tata.” While the top boss is scripted as a generic jefe, complete with poolside babes and a backyardshotgun range, Andy Garcia turns him into an individual through affably bent line readings alone.
“The Mule” caters to the star’s older, more culturally conservative constituency with grumblings about texting and modern technology, not to mention Earl’s genially un-PC language when dealing with his cartel handlers or an all-lesbian motorcycle club he happens to run into. So is the character racist or is the movie? The truth of a movie like “The Mule,” and the danger of it, too, is that it depends on viewers and whether they allow Earl’s blinkered worldview to confirm and excuse their own bigotries or, alternately, assume with horror that the character is the star.
Both views sell this filmmaker short and always have. “The Mule” has moments that can cross an audience’s wires by darkening our feelings for Earl and switching sympathies to his employers. A lunch scene at a roadside barbecue joint, with his two Mexican mindersstared down by tables full of hostile, white Middle Americans, or a pair of run-ins with the law — one with a racist cop, the other with a terrified innocent who just kind of looks Mexican — introduce static into the movie’s supposedly clear-cut politics.
When Earl purchases the affections of two hookers with his new wealth, are we supposed to cheer or be creeped out? Discuss. On the other hand, a party scene where the camera lingers long and often on the bikini-clad bottoms of female extras is a director’s choice and queasy-making for all the wrong reasons. (Apropos of nothing and everything, the early November death of actor/director and one-time Eastwood companion Sondra Locke was widely reported this week. Even a cursory knowledge of their relationship will complicate your feelings about Eastwood, and not at all for the better.)
Most notably, “The Mule” leaves the moralizing up to the audience. Are you really rooting for this foxy grandpa to succeed at flooding the Chicago area with cocaine? Maybe you should think about that. Lord knows, the director doesn’t make it easy, given that his movie veers between moments of strained sentimentality, good ol’ boy jingoism, and eerie, uncategorizable grace notes. “Breaking Bad: The Retirement Years” this is not. But who said movies were supposed to be easy? Not Eastwood, even if everyone’s been making that mistake his entire career.
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Nick Schenk. Starring Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Dianne Wiest, Andy Garcia. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 116 minutes. R (language throughout, brief sexuality/nudity).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.