Clint Eastwood Grapples with His Legend in 'The Mule'
Clint Eastwood is 88 years old. That really can't be mentioned enough times. Every word of praise and criticism about his latest movie must be viewed through the prism of THE FACT THAT HE'S EIGHTY FREAKING EIGHT YEARS OLD.
Eastwood's IMDB page will tell you that this is his 40th directorial project, though admittedly a few of those are TV episodes and documentary shorts. Still, his filmmaking footprint has stretched across now several decades of Hollywood history (his first feature film debuted in 1971), and his contributions as both an actor and director are by now part of the firmament. Directing yourself in a movie is almost impossible--many have tried and epically failed--and he's done it brilliantly dozens of times.
I hope that's an adequate amount of respect for an absolute icon, because the truth is time and again we have observed aging stars become caricatures of themselves as they come to the home stretch of their careers.
The criticism of late era Clint Eastwood is not that he is lazy or somehow resting on his laurels. There are rumors that he prefers to shoot every scene in just one or two takes, sure, but no one can deny that all of his projects are competently assembled. If he was lazy he wouldn't still be making movies at 88! The criticism is simply that he paints with a broad brush. The beauty, and shortcoming, of his movies is their clarity. Think Flags of our Fathers, Invictus, American Sniper, Sully. Uncomplicated heroes complete straightforward missions.
That's why sports and war have been such fertile areas for him to mine for story. There are good guys and bad guys, and the goal is to win. There's nothing wrong with this formula! It's a recipe for a really fulfilling movie.
However, his latest effort left my unsatisfied. If you've seen the trailer and/or read this far you know by now that Eastwood plays an elderly man who acts as a drug mule to earn money for his estranged family. The lines between good and evil are drawn just as clearly as usual, with the cartel on one side and the main character's family on the other (one of those groups is all white and one is all Mexican...take from that what you will).
Eastwood's protagonist is even portrayed heroically, despite the fact that he enjoys the company of prostitutes (more than once), maintains a strong dose of racial insensitivity and neglects his family for decades. Underneath all of that he has a heart of gold! I swear!
The difference is, unlike many of the other titles mentioned, his mission is not straightforward. Eastwood's character has spent his entire life ignoring his family and only starts believing he needs to make money for them when he himself falls on hard times and his flower business goes under (he subsequently uses his drug money to buy a new car, a gold bracelet etc.). He learns pretty quickly what he's transporting, and spends very little time if any struggling with the moral consequences of it. And the ultimate payoff of the film, which I won't spoil, has absolutely nothing to do with his drug running (one character says so explicitly). So what the heck was the point?
The point comes from that internal conflict which permeates all of Eastwood's projects, even his two best (mentioned below). All of Eastwood's protagonists grapple with the same question: am I good man? Or a bad man? On the outside he might be taking down bad guys and furthering the cause of good, but inside he's riddled with regret and massive amounts of guilt for past sins. Eastwood's characters snarl, they cuss, they act like a-holes. They have skeletons in the closet. Can that closet ever be truly cleaned?
This is what sets Eastwood apart from Robert Redford, who did the whole "Remember me? I'm that old movie star you've loved your whole life!" bit in this year's The Old Man and the Gun. In a way, each of their latest projects stayed true to the personas the two stars have created over their careers (going back to the caricature thing), with Redford being far less conflicted about his heroism. And if you're deciding one of those two movies to watch, for the record, The Old Man and the Gun is a far better movie and far more worthy of your time.
In weighing the indignity of leaving off all of Eastwood's iconic westerns of the 1970s against his seminal classic, I came down on the side of this four-time Oscar winning drama. Two decades of Eastwood mythology were constructed as if for the express purpose of this one masterpiece. It's one of those rare moments in history where real life and on-screen fiction meld into this sort of meta-narrative that serves a film perfectly (The Old Man and the Gun is actually another great example).
On a tangent, it's crazy to think that Eastwood was convincingly portraying and old, over-the-hill outlaw 26 years ago and can somehow still do it today. His costars, Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, have a similar ability to be agelessly old, and are fantastic in their roles. Unforgiven is on the list of mandatory viewing for anyone who considers themselves a movie fan.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
It is telling that the two times Eastwood worked to subvert his clear-cut formula, even slightly, he was richly rewarded at the Academy Awards. He won four more trophies for this 2004 boxing ballad, costarring alongside Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman. A black-and-white tale of overcoming adversity turns wondrously gray in the third act.
That third act begins with one of the best plot twists in modern movie history. If you don't know what I'm talking about, prepare to be blown away. If you have seen it, I'd encourage you to go back and rewatch the movie and check out how well Eastwood lays out the breadcrumbs and foreshadows that plot twist, so when it eventually does come it sneaks up on you and hits with maximum impact. That kind of thing is the reason we call Clint Eastwood one of the best directors of all time.