The Mule and The Old Man & The Gun are two modest and surprisingly similar movies that help shape the legacies of their respective leading actors.
Clint Eastwood’s The Mule opened in theaters this weekend, the latest film from the actor-writer-director whose credits include films like Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, and Unforgiven. Unlike some of Eastwood’s more recent films, The Mule appears keenly aware of and interested in the legacy of its creator and star.
Based on a true story, Eastwood stars in The Mule as Earl Stone, a 90-year-old horticulturist turned drug mule. Estranged from his family and forced to close his farm due to poor finances, Earl receives an offer to drive a nondescript package through Illinois to make some money. The details of what he’s transporting and who he’s transporting it for remain a secret until later in the film and the movie plays coy with revealing the extent of Earl’s knowledge, but one thing is for certain: Earl is breaking the law. The law, however, cannot catch Earl.
Earl, a 90-year-old white guy living in the Midwest, doesn’t turn many heads driving a pickup truck back and forth along the quiet Illinois highways. As such, he succeeds in slipping through the DEA’s fingers with ease. His look, attitude, and movements do not fit the mold of what law enforcement expect from a drug mule thereby allowing him to transport millions of dollars of cocaine with ease.
This very specific conceit is fundamental to another film released this year: David Lowrey’s The Old Man & The Gun. Starring Robert Redford as Forrest Tucker, the movie follows the last days of a career criminal who gets away with robbing banks, escaping prison, and evading the law thanks to his exceeding charm and disarming courtesy.
Both Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood star in these movies as old men who moonlight as criminals, making money through obviously illegal channels yet evading the law on account of their unexpected auras. One of few differences between the two characters is their level of experience. In The Old Man & The Gun, Tucker has been doing this all his life whereas Earl in The Mule picks it up late in life.
There’s an inherent charm in this element that drives both movies. It’s fun watching good people, or at least watching characters portrayed as good people, get away with breaking the law (this is basically the idea that heist movies are built upon).
The Old Man & The Gun and The Mule both tap into this. In Redford’s case, it’s his character’s charm and care towards others, even the ones he’s robbing, that helps justify his behavior. For Eastwood, the movie uses convenient plot points that justify taking huge amounts of money from the drug cartel including his granddaughter’s wedding, the V.F.W. closing down, and an ice skating rink in need of repair.
Both films work to build up these characters as infallible yet imperfect; their success in work and crime is owed entirely to who they are and less about what they can do. Their personalities make them the perfect criminals. That does not, however, make them perfect people and both movies are quick to establish that.
Both protagonists are conveniently depicted as bad dads, forced to reckon with their carelessness and absenteeism either directly or indirectly late in their lives. In The Old Man & The Gun, when Tucker is asked if he has kids, he responds honestly but rather cruelly that he doesn’t know. A scene later in the film reveals he does have an adult daughter (played by Elisabeth Moss) who he abandoned.
The Mule deals with this more head on. The film’s prologue shows Earl missing his own daughter’s wedding to drink with his friends. After the 12 year time jump, he’s shown as completely estranged from his daughter and ex-wife. His work for the cartel, ironically, helps put him on track to becoming a better family man.
Aside from all the narrative elements the two movies share, it’s impossible to deny how both movies contribute to and help shape the legacies of their leading actors. Aged 82 and 88 respectively, Redford and Eastwood are nearing the final years of their careers. Redford himself even referred to The Old Man & the Gun as a sort of retirement project. That fact casts a long shadow over these two movies, helping to inform our understanding of these two characters and how they are inherently tied to their actor’s real life persona.
For Eastwood, Earl’s rejection of modernity — that includes everything from cell phones and the internet to political correctness — are clearly meant to contribute to a meta-narrative about the actor and director’s own career and public persona. Bring up Clint Eastwood online and you’re sure to find someone who will mention his 2012 speech at the Republican National Convention that decried Obama as a failing president or his positive comments about Trump during the 2016 campaign.
The Mule seeks to redefine and/or better articulate Eastwood through his art. Earl, as a vehicle for Eastwood himself, is depicted as politically-ambivalent, racially-biased, and yet entirely affable. For example, he stops to help a black family with a flat tire and refers to them as “Negroes.” After they tell him that’s inappropriate, he apologizes and continues to help them. The movie does this a few times, shrugging off Earl’s casual racism because his heart is in the right place.
This is a recurring element in Eastwood’s later work and in The Mule it functions to create a meta-commentary about Eastwood himself. He is, without a doubt, a proud conservative, but his movies make it clear he wants to be remembered for being a specific kind of conservative. It’s unclear whether The Mule is entirely successful in achieving this goal, however, it makes it exceedingly clear that it’s trying.
For Redford, his role in The Old Man & the Gun means something different. Whereas Eastwood appears determined to use The Mule to set the record straight, Redford’s role in Lowrey’s film is far more akin to a musical coda; a poetic and moving finale that traces a portrait of the kind of generous and enchanting actor Redford has always been throughout his career.
The Old Man & the Gun gives Redford a role that allows him to shine, reverberating the unique gravitas that has defined his screen presence for decades. The very concept of a bank robber charming his victims into compliance is, maybe not so subtly, an allegory for Redford’s own career – one filled with characters through which Redford has channeled his unique magnetism. The Old Man & the Gun is an ode to that man and a reminder of the legacy he leaves behind.
It’s not surprising that veteran actors would use movies, especially those late in their careers, to help shape the legacy and memory they want to leave behind. The vanity of such an endeavor is obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth noticing.