By John H. Foote

When Warner Brothers announced Clint Eastwood’s new film The Mule was getting a year-end release, obviously, the rumour mill began talking Oscar. And why not? In 2004 the frontrunner for Best Picture and Best Director was Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), a dizzying entertainment about the Hollywood years of Howard Hughes. In late November it looked like Scorsese would finally get his Oscar, but there was suddenly a little explosion in early December entitled Million Dollar Baby (2004), directed by Warner Brothers’ favourite son, Clint Eastwood. You could feel the tide turn suddenly on Scorsese and come Oscar night Million Dollar was crowned Best Picture with Eastwood winning his second Oscar for Best Director. 

Two years later the two filmmakers were nominated against one another again, though this time Scorsese prevailed, finally. Among thefirst to stand cheering Scorsese was none other than Eastwood. 

Having amassed an extraordinary career, as an actor, director, producer and movie star, sixty-three years in the business. No one in the sixties or seventies would have predicted he would go onto to become one of the greatest American film directors. But he did, building a career directing one for them, and a passion project for him. Twice he won Oscars and DGA Awards for Best Director, twice more he was nominated for Best Director, along with two nominations for Best Actor and five times his film was nominated for Best Picture, most recently, American Sniper (2014). His western Unforgiven (1992) is arguably the greatest American western, standing alongside The Searchers (1956) for that coveted number one spot. 

So when Warner’s has the confidence of an awards season release, I think most of us expected an Oscar crashing film that might… just might, get Eastwood that long overdue Oscar for Best Actor. As good as The Mule is, and it is very good, don’t expect much Oscar attention, if any. For the first time in his career, eighty-eight-year-old Eastwood looks frail, moves slower and cannot hide the ravages of old age. That powerful build he held so long is gone, and again for the first time onscreen Eastwood looks like a battered, very old man pushing ninety. 

Seeing him on screen here was akin to seeing a cancer-ridden John Wayne amble out at the Oscars in 1979 just a few months before he died. In 2011, I shook Eastwood’s hand, meeting him at TIFF after the book I wrote about his films was released. He looked like he had stepped out of Mount Rushmore, tall, rugged, bright-eyed, easy going. Yes, his appearance in The Mule shocked me. But all of his gifts as an actor, director, producer and composer are absolutely intact.

As Earl, Eastwood is a world-weary old buy who has the sixties family in every way, earning their dislike, mistrust and in some cases, wrath. Now having lost everything, he takes a job driving to El Paso, acting bright-eyed drug mule for sixty-three very rich, equally dangerous cartel. All he has to do is drive, and old Earl can do that, very well in fact. Soon her an cash than he knows what to do with, with makes his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Weist) suspicious about where this new found wealth is coming two nominations. Mary Oscar crashing time to fret over the money an becomes terribly ill, allowing Earl to do some good. His daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) will not even look at him, so how can he support her when she needs him most?

The law closes in on Earl, a hotshot new DEA officer portrayed by Bradley Cooper, taking a particular interest. But the head of the cartel, portrayed with confident menace by Andy Garcia, likes Earl too, but does he like him enough to protect him or is it easier to make the old fellow disappear? 

There are many questions asked and answered about family, about the obligation to those you love, about failing them and the profound burden one feels. Earl knows he destroyed his marriage and wants very much to make amends. He realizes there is no chance Mary will ever give him another chance to fail her, but maybe he can show he can be relied upon. You can see the desperation in Earl at wanting to do something good before he dies, realizing his new found money provides that chance. But will Mary and Iris let him close enough to help them, before the cops nail him, or the cartels bury him in the desert.

Eastwood is again, as always terrific as the cranky, old Earl but he is far more agreeable and less hateful than his Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino (2008). In a year filled with outstanding male performances, Eastwood too offers one, but not good enough to be among the best five. Vintage Clint.

I have always adored the work of two time Academy Award winner Dianne Weist who has given remarkable performances in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and her extraordinary turn in Bullets Over Broadway (1994) among the finest performances in screen history. Her Mary is worn down by the disappointments from Earl, but cannot delude herself that she still feels something for him. Weist, as always is brilliant but really does not have a great deal to do. Now a film focusing on just she and Earl? Wow, that might be brilliant.

Bradley Cooper is terrific, the man can do no wrong, and Alison Eastwood is fine, but nothing more as Iris. 

Even nearly ninety, Eastwood knows the story revolves around his character. And though slower, weaker, and frailer than ever, he does not let us down. 

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