The Mule
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Dianne Wiest, Alison Eastwood, Taissa Farmiga, Bradley Cooper, Andy Garcia
Rated  R for language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity
1 hr. 56 min.

Clint Eastwood has been the symbol of many things during 60-plus years in front of and behind the camera. From Rawhide’s Rowdy Yates to Dirty Harry, from A Fist Full of Dollars to Unforgiven, Gran Torino and beyond, he’s mostly been the hard-ass who rights wrongs. At 88, he goes against the grain of most filmmakers his age by starring in and directing The Mule, a film about an elderly man doing what is patently wrong to survive.

Based on a true story, Eastwood is Earl Stone, a Midwestern salt-of-the-earth grower of day lilies who has spent a lifetime putting work ahead of family. This tendency goes to such extremes that he attends a growers convention to accept an award, completely forgetting that his daughter, Iris (played by real-life daughter, Alison Eastwood), is getting married the same day. She refuses to talk to him again. The same goes for his ex-wife, Mary (an always enjoyable Dianne Weist).

It should go without saying that Earl is a luddite of vast proportions, pooh-poohing technological advancement. As competition by internet retailers crumbles his flower business to dust, only his granddaughter, Ginny (Taissa Farmiga), holds him in any esteem. It’s at her engagement party that a guest overhears of his near destitution, which leads to an invitation to make some . . . well-paid deliveries. Earl is then off on a late-in-life criminal adventure, driving multiple kilos of cocaine to delivery points for a Mexican cartel.

Eastwood unabashedly inhabits his character’s age and disposition. Every remaining hair is wispy, veins in his neck and arms are visible and thick as cords. Earl is a man nearing 90 with a lot of what he loves lost to him. He makes the most of his risky job, doing it well enough to become the guest of Laton, the drug lord himself (played by Andy Garcia without missing a beat), at a bacchanal chock full of bikini-clad women and all manner of excess.

Pursuing the cartel’s “mules,” as they’re known, are two Drug Enforcement Agency agents (Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña) and their boss (Laurence Fishburne), whose patience is growing short. At a crucial juncture, the drug lord’s disgruntled underlings and the DEA almost simultaneously close in on Earl. Unfortunately, it’s just as he begins to enjoy the fruits of his dubious labors, and the possibility of regaining the respect of his estranged family.

I think in these later acting roles and directorial efforts, Eastwood breaks the mold he set for his earlier movies. His elderly characters are hurt, bent, imperfect, no frills, flat-out insensitive rather than politically incorrect, but reflective — and in the end, they learn from their experiences.

Written by Sam Dolnick and Nick Schenk, the latter of whom also penned Gran Torino (intended to be Eastwood’s final screen appearance, but, c’mon! We knew better!), The Mule is an absorbingly told tale of a man acquiring perspective, as winter descends upon his life. Will the lion go out with a roar, or with his claws dulled, his teeth worn down, his mane splotched and thinned? In this case, he’s as full throated as his strength allows. Eastwood himself might be the real lion in winter, turning out quality box office hits when, for the rest of the pride, the clouds gather, and a rime frosts all else. He remains a force of nature.