By Jason McBride (Seattle, WA, USA)
Clint Eastwood’s latest effort, The Mule is as much a western as Unforgiven or High Plains Drifter. Just swap out the horse for a truck, the outlaw gang for a Mexican drug cartel, and the pistols for the steely acceptance of death that comes with advanced age. The Mule tells the story of Earl Stone (played by Eastwood), a down-on-his-luck champion flower grower and divorcee who takes up cocaine smuggling at the tender age of 90. The nonagenarian’s invisibility to law enforcement makes Earl a hit with the cartel that employs him, while the easy cash brings him closer to his estranged family. But things sour under new leadership at the cartel and pressure from a DEA sting, and Earl finds himself gambling with his life to make up for lost time with his loved ones.
For some, Eastwood’s character will be something to aspire to, a man who speaks his mind without regard for (or even knowledge of) changing social mores; a man of action who doesn’t have to “call the Internet” to figure out how to change a tire; a man who enjoys wine, women and singing along to the cozy tunes of Dean Martin and Hank Snow. Like his classic Man With No Name from the Sergio Leone trilogy, Earl rides alone across the American landscape, the rugged individualist with no time for fads and factions. But for others, Earl might be a relic of shameful Americana. In one scene, he pulls over to help a black couple stranded by a flat tire. In an encapsulation of our current culture wars, the woman objects to Earl’s using the word “negro.” Although it seems a bit far-fetched that even a man old enough to have served in the Korean War wouldn’t know to say “black,” the scene is clearly set up to posit the question: would the couple prefer a politically correct urbanite who blows past them instead? Earl is otherwise civil and, more importantly, mechanically inclined.
It’s clear that Eastwood wants to poke at the new pieties, but that doesn’t stop him from caricaturing the old ones, too. In another scene, a local cop profiles Earl’s Mexican colleagues, but Earl comes to their rescue with a show of bless-our-law-enforcement-folks corn (via a bribe of literal corn- caramel). Bottom line, Earl doesn’t have time for racial justice or racism. He’s a classic live-and-let-live guy, more concerned with getting his house out of foreclosure and growing some lilies again. Some might write off The Mule as libertarian wish fulfillment. After all, with stoic ease, Earl pockets bundles of cash and gets his house, not to mention forgiveness from his family when he helps pay for his granddaughter’s wedding and college education. He even does some high living at a cartel house party without going into cardiac arrest.
It’s tempting to critique yet another Hollywood film for “glamorizing” machismo and money, except that the violence of the cartel turns on itself, transforming his benefactors into a source of stress, and Earl is forced to dodge his new handlers at his literal peril to attend to a family emergency. Unlike many so-called conservatives of today, Earl never acts the victim. In the end, he pays a price for his choices, but most importantly, he chooses to pay that price. It’s a powerful statement about liberty: freedom means rights, but also responsibilities. And there’s nothing more classically western than that.
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