Friday, December 28, 2018

The Mule (2018)

Mr. Day-lily
or
"Regrets I've Had a Few, But, Then Again, I Made The Rookie"

Glenn Close: This is Cameron's first nomination and he's in extremely good company. Tonight he joins fellow best actor nominee Paul Newman for "Coot", Clint Eastwood for "Codger", Michael Douglas for "Primary Urges" and Steven Seagal for "Snowball in Hell".
In & Out, 1997

It's a bit of a shock to see Clint Eastwood return to acting, his first appearance since 2012's Trouble with the Curve, at the age of 88. Then you relaize: who else could play The Mule, based on the New York Times article "The Sinaloa Cartel's 90-Year Old Drug Mule"? Who else would an insurance company bet on any other actor, other than Eastwood, to complete the film? After all, he has continued to direct films during his hiatus. As budgets bloom and special effects extravaganzas mushroom through the multi-plexes, Eastwood continues to make simple movies, under budget and under schedule. It is also an opportunity to work again with screenwriter Nick Schenk who wrote Eastwood's first "swan song" Gran Torino in 2008, ten years ago.
But, Eastwood is definitely looking his age: he's frailer, the skin on his arms—which one would have referred to as "guns" back in the day—has turned crepey, and a certain careful feebleness has crept into his movements. But, the crooked smile is still there and the enthusiasm is never less than present.

Never seen the fear, though.
Eastwood plays Earl Stone*, a commercial horticulturist with a specialty in day-lilies, those plants that flower one bloom at a time lasting 24 hours. He's done it for the last few years, carefully tending his wares, then traveling to horti-conventions where he likes to mingle and sell his starters, usually be sheer personality. He's always the life of the party and he makes a good living at it.
But, not a good life.

His time on the road makes him an absent father and grandfather, estranged from his wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood, appropriately, who played Eastwood's daughter in Tightrope), but still viewed with hope by granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Stone would rather be schmoozing in the bar than walk Iris down the aisle for her second wedding. Perhaps it's his age, but more than likely it's that he can't stop pursuing the bright shiny objects that he's afraid he'll miss. He's not into The Big Picture, or making a five-year plan, and he only looks down the road far enough to make his destination. He's lived far longer than is practical, given his short sight. 
For instance, his business. His nursery is a humble arrangement, but the business model gets changed by the internet. Pretty soon, his orders start to wither due to competing online sales. He loses the nursery and is left with his battered old truck and no visible means.

As he says, "I'm not a Plan-B kind of guy."
But, at his granddaughter's pre-wedding dinner—which deigns to attend, causing his wife and daughter to walk out in disgust—he gets an offer: how would he like to drive transport for "some guys?" His money situation is critical, so he takes the given address and drives to a nondescript garage, no questions asked.
He's looked at with suspicion by the guys at the garage, one of whom totes an automatic weapon. The job is simple; drive up to Illinois to a certain hotel, park the truck, leave the keys in the glove-box, and then...walk away. For an hour. Go get something to eat. When he comes back, the keys will still be there, but so will his payment. Then, just drive back.
Stone makes the first run, and is amazed to find an envelope with a stack of "benjamins" inside when he returns. His contact on that end makes an unprecedented appearance outside his window, saying he did good and that there is more work if he wants it.
Stone is flush—the pay for these drug runs is a thousand per kilo of cocaine delivered—and he buys a new tricked-out truck to replace the old one, and he is able to indulge. But, then some "need" will come along—his VFW hall is shutting down, his granddaughter is going to a cosmetology college—there's always something, and despite his years, Stone is well-regarded by his handlers, even friendly to him. Stone knows how to schmooze, when to play the fool, when to stand his ground, and he's respected. Sure, he's an ornery SOB at times, but he soon becomes known as "Grandfather" and "Tata."
Even Laton (Andy Garcia), who runs the whole operation from his sumptuous villa, thinks highly of Stone, because he's agreeable, somewhat efficient, and easily plied. It doesn't make any difference to him what he's traffiking. Nobody's going to suspect a friendly octogenarian.
Not even the DEA? The head of a local chapter (Laurence Fishburne) has just welcomed new recruit Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) to his squad to be working with another agent (Michael Peña) in trying to stop the wide-spread illegal transport within the borders. He has one instruction—make a splash. This Bates does by putting pressure on a local contact who knows the routes, the people and the routine. Running parallel to Stone's story is their deliberate uncovering of the network pipeline and their planning to bust it wide open, the inevitable result of which being that, at some point, given twists in the road, the stories will merge, making Stone, once again, the center of attention, but the kind of notice that has consequences.
Eastwood's direction is simple, efficient, and not showy—as it usually is—and the performances are good throughout, with Wiest and Alison Eastwood being the stand-outs. Cooper and Peña are not given much to do other than act professional. It's Eastwood's show and a cautionary tale on the price of selfishness, hubris, and getting rick too quick—and of stubbornness without conscience.


* "The names have been changed." "The Mule" was actually Leo Sharp (pictured below). He died December 12, 2016 at the age of 92. The Mule was released on December 14, 2018.

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