The Last One

Clint Eastwood, mortality, and The Mule

The Mule (2018) | Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

My wife gently nudged me awake. She was headed to school in the early, cold, January morning. In a half-sleep state, I expected her usual morning goodbye, with a kiss on the forehead and a whispered “I love you,” but she said, “I need to tell you something.”

My eyes opened wider. “What?”

“I wanted to tell you that David Bowie passed away.”

It couldn’t be, I thought. “But he just released the new album,” I said.

“I know. I’m sorry, I’ve got to go to work.”

After she was gone, I reached for my phone and opened Twitter, scrolling through the outpouring of grief and shock that cluttered my timeline. I was in disbelief. Just the Friday before, I had gone to a local retailer to pick up the CD of his new album, Blackstar. I hadn’t even listened to it yet. But, it was true. He was gone. As I read through tributes and lamentations, it soon became clear what he had done. In his final act on this earth, before returning to his home planet, knowing that the cancer growing inside him would eventually kill him, he had turned his impending death into a work of art. His final music videos, the songs on the album, even the sudden rapturous departure, without a hint of the illness that eventually took him whispered to the public—all coalesced into his magic trick’s final prestige. Here was a brief collection of songs, through which he had chosen to say goodbye, as Major Tom floated off into outer space for the last time. His final years were mysterious, full of vague hints of future projects, rumors and conjecture about his intentions, albums suddenly materializing after long absences. And now, he was gone.

For me, he was the first one to go. He was 69 years old, and a quintessential member of a culture-defining generation of musicians, filmmakers, playwrights, and authors, none of whom is getting any younger. They’re all much “closer to the end than to the beginning,” as one of Paddy Chayefsky’s characters in Network says, vocalizing the terrifying realization of his own mortality.

Clint Eastwood, older than Bowie by 20 years, returned to the screen last month in the crime drama The Mule, which he has also produced and directed. The Mule is the second feature he released last year, following the February release of The 15:17 to Paris, based on the true story of three American servicemen who stopped a terrorist attack aboard a French train. Though that film was largely dismissed critically, it’s not hard to admire it on one level; he daringly cast the three real servicemen, non-actors, to play themselves and essentially reenact their act of heroism on screen. While the effectiveness of this choice is debatable, for a director as old as Eastwood, with as many films on his resume as he has, the decision to cast them was certainly bold. The 15:17 to Paris also fits into a larger progression of Eastwood’s films over recent years, many of which are engaged with questions of heroism. It was preceded by the twin bill of American Sniper in 2014 and Sully in 2016, each also based on a true story, and each an examination of the meaning of heroism from the perspectives of their central characters, sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in the former, and pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) in the latter.

Eastwood has long been a filmmaker concerned with his own image on screen, as he has shown in his Westerns, which engage with the Man With No Name persona he created with director Sergio Leone in the spaghetti-Western Dollars Trilogy, appearing to resurrect that character in both High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider under his own direction. He’s also explored his on-screen relationship with violence throughout his career, following his other signature role in the five Dirty Harry films. As he has receded from the spotlight in front of the camera, he has shifted his preoccupations onto other, real-life men who have struggled with violence and moments of intense trauma in their own lives. As he has aged, Eastwood has more directly engaged with a key question that has lurked in the background of most of his films throughout his career: what does it mean to be a good man?

His last on-screen performance was in 2012’s Trouble with the Curve, a baseball-themed dramedy about an old scout trying to reconnect with his daughter (Amy Adams). In many respects, however, 2008’s Gran Torino, a Detroit-set drama about a racist Korean War veteran inspired to protect a local boy from a threatening gang, seemed like a fitting final on-screen statement upon its release. That film memorably climaxes with Eastwood’s character Walt confronting the gang members in the fashion seemingly typical of Eastwood. He approaches them on their porch, his hand in his pocket, and we wait for them to say the wrong thing so he can pull his hand cannon and blast them into the next world. The Man With No Name, Dirty Harry Callahan, and William Munny, they’ve all done it countless times before. But here is Eastwood’s magic trick: he’s unarmed. When he draws, it’s just his finger; the gangsters blow him away. Walt has ensured they’ll be arrested for his murder, taken off the streets, and his young friend will be protected from their threats, intimidation, and violence. It is a profound rejection of an entire career’s worth of on-screen violence. Over the years, the image of this man, pulling the trigger over and over again with such ease, and making it look cool, has racked up quite a body count. And yet, in one of his final roles, he seemed to be making amends.

Though Trouble with the Curve is easier to dismiss (not least because he didn’t also direct it), it too is concerned with apologies, as Eastwood’s Gus tries to repair his relationship with Mickey (Adams). Gus is a man who spent his daughter’s childhood on the road, taking notes and trading barbs with fellow scouts in any number of minor league ballparks in all the country’s minor league cities. He is a man full of regrets, reluctantly driven to try to make it right.

I don’t know whether The Mule will be Eastwood’s final film, either in front of or behind the camera. But it sure feels like it. The preoccupation with mortality suffuses the film’s every moment. As Earl Stone, a 90-year-old horticulturist with mounting bills and shaky family relationships who agrees to become a cartel drug mule, Eastwood moves through the film like the old man he is. His every hunchbacked step carries with it the ghosts of tall-walking, stoic anti-heroes of movies past. He has his share of scripted lines, but mostly the film finds him reacting in mutters, cursing the world’s unfairness under his breath. As became customary of his films around the turn of the century, his tone is decidedly crotchety, registering his skepticism of the internet, smartphones, and texting. He is a man who knows he’s a relic, and leans into it. The people around him are buried in their screens, obsessed with whatever hit of dopamine the phones can give them. Earl is a man who sees the beauty of the natural world; the film begins and ends with him lovingly tending to flowers, a shocking sight for those Eastwood devotees who are more used to him brandishing a Magnum than a pair of gardening shears.

Like many of Eastwood’s films before it, The Mule is concerned with the working life and its impact on the personal life. In 1980’s Bronco Billy, one of Eastwood’s best, he is the ringleader of a traveling country and western show, its ragtag group of half-competent entertainers each doing their best to put on a good performance for all them little pardners out there. The film works as a beautiful meditation on the practice of filmmaking, as Billy (and Eastwood) continually reminds the others that he is “head ramrod around here.” This is Eastwood’s purest vision of how he sees his own work, at least up to that point. He carries on with the show, despite the fact that it is no financial juggernaut—for the people who come to see it, of course. But really, he does it for himself and the bonds he forges with the others who work with him. This is a director who would go on to use many of the same crew members on his films for years, a traveling roadshow of people coming together to see if they can pull off another one.

Bronco Billy doesn’t have much of a personal life to speak of. His life is the road, a rootless, traveling existence on wheels, at the head of a trailer convoy headed for those open parts just outside of town. Earl, too, seems happiest on the road. He speaks frequently throughout The Mule of his love of driving, and is proud of the 41 states to which his beat-up old truck has taken him. After he buys a sleek, black pickup with the proceeds from his first run, Earl spends his drug runs singing songs on the radio, including “Ain’t That a Kick in The Head” and “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Earl’s love of song dovetails with Eastwood’s, whose screen persona included its fair share of musicality with his performance in 1969’s Paint Your Wagon, his tubercular guitar man Red Stovall in Honkytonk Man in 1982, and closing Gran Torino with his ghostly, gravelly voice floating in over the final image of the car driving away. And yet despite Earl’s love of singing, the predominant image is of his isolation in the truck; he is singing for no one, with no one. It’s just him, out there alone.

It is this lack of personal attachment that The Mule’s Earl laments. In one conversation with a young cartel member, Earl tells him to get out of the business and find something he loves to do, to remember that family is the most important thing. In another conversation with the DEA agent, Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper), on his trail, he tells him much the same thing. As Bates sits across from Earl at a Waffle House, unaware that the man he’s after is the harmless old fellow at the counter, he suddenly realizes he’s forgotten his wife’s anniversary. Earl offers his own experience as a cautionary tale, telling Bates to remember the importance of family. Earl has learned, too late, that work should have been secondary to the people in his life. On one level, there is Earl, offering advice to the man who will eventually catch him. On another, there is Eastwood, offering advice to a protégé, Cooper, who has now become a director himself. It feels like one artist passing the torch to another, but it comes with a warning.

In his later years, Eastwood has not frequently reused actors. Cooper, who first worked with Eastwood in 2014’s American Sniper, is a notable inclusion here. So too is Laurence Fishburne, who previously worked with Eastwood on Mystic River in 2003. Michael Peña, who appeared in Million Dollar Baby in 2004, is also back. More revealing, however, is the casting of Eastwood’s daughter Alison as Earl’s estranged daughter Iris, who does not speak to her father for much of the film after he misses her wedding for a horticulture conference in the film’s 10-minute prologue. He has missed her life because he was preoccupied with his career. He spent so much time making sure his flowers grew that he forgot to watch her do the same.

Earl is also in conflict with his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest), who has seemingly put up with a lifetime of his broken promises and absentee-husband act. She has no patience for his behavior, but also no expectation that he will change. Earl spent his life on the road, and his home fell into disrepair long ago. When Mary grows ill with cancer late in the film, Earl must choose once again between work and family. He is on a run for the cartel, his truck loaded with drugs, when he gets a call from his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) telling him that Mary is headed home for the last time. He goes to her, sitting by her bedside, assuring her that though he spent much of their lives somewhere else, “I’m here now.”

On the Thursday before The Mule opened, news broke that Sondra Locke, one of Eastwood’s partners on- and off-screen for nearly 10 years, had passed away from cancer in November. Regrets hang over every scene between Earl and Mary, especially as he realizes how little time he has to reconnect with her. The taciturn Eastwood would likely never admit publicly that he imported these familial and personal details from his own life, but the real octogenarian drug mule who inspired the film, Leo Sharp, was not estranged from his family. His wife did not die of cancer. These are Eastwood’s inventions, and more reflective of his experience than the true story behind the movie.

As he waits for the inevitable at her home, the choice gains extra resonance because he has decided to ignore the threats of the cartel, who have grown impatient with him. He is supposed to deliver his load to the regular drop point, but has decided it is more important to choose family over work. Given one last opportunity to choose between the two, the film seems to suggest he has chosen correctly in its lingering scenes in Mary’s home, as Earl tries to rebuild whatever personal bridges he has burned on his way to excessive professional devotion. He redeems himself in Ginny’s eyes, and attends Mary’s funeral as a welcome member of the family. Even the cartel members, when they finally find Earl, are surprisingly understanding when he explains why he disappeared.

However, the film’s irony is that in trying to reconnect with his family through the money he earns from making the drug runs for the cartel, he is setting himself up to lose it. Just like the real drug mule who inspired the film, Earl is caught, pleads guilty, and ends up behind bars for his crimes. It is a relatively ignoble end for a man whose on-screen persona was so towering. There is no act of purgative violence, which dominated so many of Eastwood’s earlier films. For the duration of the movie, he doesn’t pick up a gun. At the conclusion of the highway chase that ends in his capture, Earl looks exactly like what he is—an old man. When he gets out of the truck, following police commands, his hands in the air, he looks bewildered and unsure of what is happening. His brow is furrowed, and he squints in the bright sunlight. When Bates finally turns him around and slaps the cuffs on, he recognizes Earl from the diner and quietly says, “It’s you.” This is not the Clint Eastwood of yesterday, all swagger and quiet confidence. This is an old man, beaten down by life, not by any specific tragedy or trauma, but by doubt in himself. He has been wrung out by worries that he did everything he wanted, but the things he wanted were all wrong.  

Eastwood’s films frequently end quietly, on final shots that communicate profundity in subtlety. His final scene in The Mule features Earl tending to a new set of flowers, this time in the Marion Correctional Institute in Illinois. The final shot, wide and high above the barbed wire fence, looks down at the prison yard and its garden. Earl quietly toddles across the yard and disappears off screen. He’s gone. Though The Mule is a film about Earl’s (and, implicitly, Eastwood’s) regrets that he chose work over his family, its final image suggests that though Earl may be gone, the product of his work remains. The flowers, which he cared for, are still in frame after Earl no longer is. The work endures.

One year after David Bowie died, I finally mustered up the courage to listen to Blackstar. I hadn’t listened to it because I hadn’t wanted to face the fact that there would be no more work. That the moment I finished listening to it, the work would be done. I would never again have that experience. It would be gone, just like he was gone. But, I knew I had to do it. I waited for my wife and dogs to go to sleep, turned off the lights, and put on the album. When it was over, I thought about the beauty of what he had done. But, just the same, it was over.

Now, when I hear a Bowie song, I feel the overwhelming sense of appreciation that can only come from a person’s deep connection with another work of art. The work isn’t over, because the work lives on in me. For David Bowie. For Sam Shepard. For Harry Dean Stanton. For Bill Paxton. For Sondra Locke. And eventually, for Clint Eastwood.

The work endures.