Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 16, 2018 11:34 am 
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From daylilies to cocaine

The terrible critical rating led one to expect little of Clint Eastwood's new movie, The Mule. In fact it's watchable and suspenseful and as before Clint, who is now eighty-eight and both stars and directs, plays some possible variation of himself with total authority and ease. The protagonist he embodies is called Earl Stone. He's an old codger close to his nineties who becomes a runner for the Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico to remedy his severe financial difficulties. His successful daylily farm used to have him driving all around the country in his truck to deliver them, and he was the darling of the horticultural community. He had a small team of Hispanic employees working for him and a good smattering of Spanish to go with it. The business has gone bankrupt and the property, including his house, it being seized by the bank because he didn't switch his sales over to the internet and his competition did.

Earl appeals to the cartel as a driver because he has no police record and has never even had a traffic ticket in his entire long life. He also turns out to be a tireless if unpredictable and quirky driver; he had all that past experience delivering daylilies. The cartel people put up with the unscheduled stops for pulled pork sandwiches because of the successful deliveries, and call Earl "Tata," grandpa. They make him a regular and he makes a lot of money, replacing his rickety old pickup truck with a shiny, expensive new one, stopping foreclosure on his property, bailing out a bar hangout that burned, then helping his female relatives. He gets flown down to Mexico to meet the cartel jefe, and is served up two busty babes for the night. (He mentions Viagra, but we don't know if he uses it.)

Earl is out of touch with, and may hate, modern stuff like cell phones, texting, and the internet. By his own admission, he has no "filter" and he isn't politically correct. He calls a black couple "Negroes." They don't like that. He calls some dykes-on-bikes lesbians "ladies." They don't like that. He pities a burly man who finds a simple physical task difficult because he has one hand locked to his smart phone. The burly man doesn't like that. The black, not Negro man can't change a tire - it's to help him that Earl stops: he's tried to find out how on YouTube, but is helpless, because he can't get cell phone reception.

A lot of this, not counting the drug running, may not be much of a stretch for Clint himself. But remember, Earl is a character in a film, not a mouthpiece for the filmmaker. Objections to the way the world has been going such as are voiced by Earl are not the monopoly of the right, though they may come more easily to the elderly. The bad effects of smart phones and the internet, like those of television before them, have been noted by many. "Negroes" was, after all, the correct term in the Fifties and Sixties. You'll find it in James Baldwin's "Letter from a Region in My Mind," in 1962, reprinted in The New Yoriker several weeks ago. The word "ladies" is not the exclusive property of aging white males.

I don't share Eastwood's real life politics, but I find the tough, curmudgeonly men he's playing in his late work sympathetic. As he gets older and older, the 6'4" actor-director retains a reedy nobility. He's very different from the sly, slippery charmer played so well by Robert Redford in Lowery's The Old Man and the Gun, also out this year. In Redford one admires the acting, and one realizes he was always doing more of that than one saw. Eastwood is just being. But to do that so well, in a movie, is an art just as much.

Earl has made more personal, human mistakes. He has ignored his now ex-wife (played by Diane Wiest) and daughter (played by his own daughter, Alison Eastwood) at key times. The family stuff of course is the most important. By film's end, Earl redeems himself in that area splendidly. It's never too late for redemption, but Earl's comes a bit too easily.

Earl Stone's story as depicted in Nick Schenk's screenplay is based on a 2014 New York Times Magazine article by Sam Dolnick. It tells about Leo Sharp, a man close to his nineties whose daylily business failed because he wasn't on the internet, and who became a drug mule favored by the Sinaloa cartel. We don't know about Leo Sharp's behavior toward his family, but like Earl, he was a big hit among horticulturalists. Leo Sharp was a tad more senile than Earl Stone, but he had been a drug mule for a decade and made millions, and the claim of senility was a tool of his defense.

In the movie as in the article Earl becomes part of a wide-ranging DEA investigation aimed at the Sinaloa cartel's US cocaine shipments. Lawrence Fishbourne plays the DEA boss of a team that includes Michael Peña and, notably, Bradley Cooper. Cooper's character accidentally meets Earl in person, just as Casey Affleck's meets Robert Redford's in The Old Man and the Gun.

Eastwood's geezer drug runner does as he's told, except for his penchant for unscheduled stops, which become increasingly irritating to increasingly pressured Mexican drug cartel functionaries. The Sinaloa jefe gets offed by one of his officers in a coup shown on screen. The cartel action and the DEA moves provide narrative lines that alternate with the story of Earl's lucrative new job and his use of money to enhance his reputation and family status. He manages to reconcile with his ex-wife (Dianne Wiest), in a section that seems a little too pat and too sweet.

The movie is forgiving toward its protagonist, even though he gets caught. He gets to grow flowers in federal prison, and will be visited regularly by his adoring family, who formerly had no use for him. (Actually his real counterpart got only three years and was released early, but died soon after.) What keeps The Mule percolating throughout is the constant sense of danger, which is more haunting because Earl seems unaware of it. Eastwood may make the character too impervious, as well as too cool and too highly sexed, but the actor has a visible fragility now that offsets these glosses effectively. Clint as a geezer filmmaker-star is a good example of using what you've got.

The Mule, 116 mins., premiered 10 Dec. 2018 in Los Angeles and opened in US cinemas 14 Dec. Metascore 58.


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