A miracle. That’s the only way you could describe the impossible feat of being able to direct the films that you want to in present-day Hollywood where only a very small and chosen group of directors get to deliver the projects they want; Spielberg, James Cameron and few others. Even the likes of Martin Scorsese have taken refuge under the Netflix umbrella for “The Irishman”, the film rumoured to be truly monumental, although it is no less true that the content platform can be considered a player, and a major one at that, within the current system of film studios given their ability, or rather, their well-funded checkbook, to produce. To deny this would be to deny the harsh reality to which some refuse to yield. Well, the word “miracle” carries even greater weight when the director in question is practically a nonagenarian and capable of releasing two films in the space of a year. I suppose that at this stage you probably have a fair idea of who I’m referring to: Clint Eastwood, the last great classic, with a solid filmography in which a good handful of masterpieces stand out (“Pale Rider”, “Unforgiven”, “A Perfect World”, “The Bridges of Madison County”, “Mystic River”, “Million Dollar Baby”), some extraordinary films (“The Outlaw Josey Wales”, “Bird”, “Absolute Power”, “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “Gran Torino”, to name but a few), other good ones and the odd setback. But always true to his way of seeing and making films, taking his references from the classic cinema of which he can be considered a worthy heir.
Despite his somewhat erratic trajectory since “Gran Torino” (2008), a period in which only “American Sniper” and “Sully” could be classified as decent, the director of “High Plains Drifter” has stuck to his guns in his endeavours to remain faithful to his hallmark style of movie-making, always in keeping with budget, scheduled filming time, and his narrative corpus, in which redemption, remorse and loneliness are constants within truly colourful tales that range from real-life events (the mediocre “15:17 to Paris” and “Invictus”, or the two mentioned above) to the dramas with elements of fantasy (the rather disappointing “Hereafter”). His latest film, “The Mule”, which would fit into the group of extraordinary films, is no exception. Once the project to shoot a remake of “A Star Is Born” was shelved, which Bradley Cooper finally took on and what turned out to become his fortunate debut in direction, Eastwood concentrated on the story of Leo Sharp, a famous almost nonagenarian horticulturist, similar to Eastwood himself, who even planted the roses in George Bush Senior’s garden, and who has been greatly impacted in every sense by the economic crisis. So, his only way out is to become a mule, carrying small shipments of drugs for the Sinaloa cartel, taking advantage of his age so as not to raise suspicions among police authorities. The role has allowed Eastwood to come out of acting retirement, or so he told us at the time after starring in the somewhat inconsequential but nevertheless great “Trouble With The Curve”, directed by his collaborator, Robert Lorenz. And at the same time, he produces one of his best acting performances to date, showing a more vulnerable side to that search for redemption from his loved ones, like the scenes he shares with his on-screen wife Dianne Wiest, delivering a truly moving performance like we have rarely from him as an actor.
Eastwood packs the storyline with that political incorrectness that has been his hallmark since the “Dirty Harry” days, wagering to question the progressive stance, in his often lurid but wholly effective manner, while at the same time dynamiting mantras of the right-wing he belongs to, including racial and sexual discrimination or misogyny, giving new meaning to the more traditional and harmonious values of that America he loves and has always known how to portray with impeccable frankness. And, ok maybe it’s fair to say that the characters on the police side of the story, played by Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña and Laurence Fishburne, are somewhat blurred, but this is surely a calculated move on his part as he’s not playing around trying to construct a thriller, although at times it might seem like that, but in reality his intention is to show us the inner crossroads our leading character must navigate.
Leaving formalities aside, where he once again appeals to that impregnable classicism and illustrative clarity without forsaking the beauty we have become accustomed to in his work – that final shot with the lilies that brings everything full circle -, the most transcendental aspect of “The Mule” is that Eastwood himself can actually be found hiding beneath the skin and in the mind of the protagonist. Both are in love with their craft, both have had a turbulent sentimental life (it’s not by chance that the character of the daughter, who hates her father profoundly, is played by Alison Eastwood, his daughter in real life and who has appeared in other films of his) and both have at some point in their lives chosen the easy way, forced by circumstance. It’s extremely interesting that two such different, while at the same time extraordinary films are released in the same month as this one and “Pain & Glory” by Pedro Almodóvar. At the end of the day, both deal with the same issue: two directors of opposing styles are able to hold a mirror up to themselves, one, the Manchego, in a more than obvious way, and the other, the living legend, in much more subtle form. Would you have expected anything less?