Clint Eastwood is a terrific actor. Unfortunately, like a number of Hollywood legends who failed to take home a performance Oscar (Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Edward G. Robinson, Greta Garbo, Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Robert Mitchum, James Garner, Marilyn Monroe Richard Burton, Charlie Chaplin) Eastwood is so good at what he does, he makes it look so easy and natural, his talents are taken for granted. We just assume he is playing himself.
Anyone who has seen Heartbreak Ridge, White Hunter Black Heart, or the Bridges of Madison County knows this is not true. Outside of that perfectly-honed Harry Callahan screen persona, Eastwood has proven his range more than once, but never more so than in a little 1980 classic called Bronco Billy.
Eastwood turned 50 in 1980, was already a Hollywood legend, and with Paint Your Wagon (1969), The Beguiled (1971), and Breezy, he was a legend who had taken a number of career risks (something else Eastwood does not get enough credit for). Bronco Billy, though, was something entirely different.
Sure, Eastwood’s Bronco Billy McCoy is plenty ready to throw a punch, but he’s also a few degrees shy of a weirdo. This self-proclaimed “Fastest Gun in the West” is a walking-talking anachronism who keeps his mediocre (but charming) “Wild West Show” alive through hook or crook. Billy’s scattering of misfit performers is made up of a pregnant fake Indian, a real Indian (who’s constantly getting snakebit), a black ringleader (the wonderful Scatman Crothers), an Army deserter, an alcoholic, a cripple, a spoiled heiress, and Billy himself — a former shoe salesman from New Jersey and ex-convict who shot and wounded his unfaithful wife.
Eastwood has said that Bronco Billy is the best window into the values he holds dear — and those are forgiveness, reverence for children (“Say your prayers and stay in school, little pards.”), second chances, the melting pot, charity, unwavering loyalty to friends, the miracle of a country where you can become anything you want, and America’s big beautiful tent (as seen in the touching closing shot).
Billy is a tad dim, plenty eccentric, and as courtly and old-fashioned as a silent movie cowboy. Most of all, though, he is determined to sustain his self-created fantasy world and grateful to the country and friends who made this middle-aged self-invention possible.
Eastwood is nothing less than enchanting as Billy, and it is the kind of tightrope performance that could have easily resulted in the audience laughing at him out of a sense of superiority, instead of just laughing.
So why am I spending all this time on a 39-year-old movie in what is supposed to be a contemporary movie review? First off, I want to encourage everyone to see Bronco Billy. As the media, Democrats, academia, and even Hollywood seek to divide us more and more with un-American identity politics, Eastwood’s quirky ode to the simple grace of e pluribus unum plays even better today than it did in 1980. But there’s a second reason…
Like Billy McCoy, Eastwood’s Earl Stone is a charming, off-beat eccentric; a living, breathing anachronism; and like Bronco Billy, Eastwood appears to reveal something about his values in The Mule.
Earl Stone (Eastwood) is a 90-year-old Korean War veteran and bankrupted (by the Internet) horticulturist given a second financial chance by a Mexican drug cartel. This actually makes sense. Earl is the perfect mule, an old white guy in a pickup traveling from the Southern border to Illinois with a suitcase, a bag of pecans, golf clubs, and hundreds of kilos of cocaine.
Earl is also looking for a second chance, the means to reinvent himself. He has been a terrible family man. Work always came before family, as did the hollow pleasure of being a minor celebrity within the sub-culture of the flower trade.
And so, with his ill-gotten wealth, Earl ingratiates himself with his loved ones as he alternately impresses and infuriates his cartel confederates with his competence, poise, politically incorrect sense of humor, stubbornness, and quirky need to sing (poorly) along with the oldies station.
But in that understated way of his, Eastwood the director also has something to say about honoring our veterans, losing ourselves in our iPhones, the importance of the small pleasures of life, the common decency of those of us who populate flyover country, and how we’ve traded in the vital lesson of sticks ‘n stones as a means to feel offended and superior — which is a miserable way to live a life.
Other than the dreaded omnipresent iPhone, Earl does not lecture. Often, he is on the wrong side of it. Violating a cardinal cartel rule of the road, Earl pulls over to help a black family change a tire. With no malice he calls them “negroes.” But the “no malice” doesn’t matter because he is seeing skin color, he is focused on something meaningless. The beauty of this moment, though is that the family’s response is just as politically incorrect. Rather than screeching at Earl about his lack of Woke-ness and the proper use of the term “African-American,” the mother says, “How about just seeing us as people?” To which Early replies, “Alright.”
Overall, Earl is a tragic figure, but not due to the bankruptcy or the drug dealing. This is a man who chased career and carnal pleasures all of his life, and did so at the expense of his own happiness, that abiding happiness that can only come from being a good man, which most of all means being a good husband, son, and father. This regret dogs him like the DEA.
Eastwood’s performance is a wonder, another lovely, endearing, peculiar tightrope walk in a compelling and very touching little movie.
For those who don’t know, Eastwood’s Earl is based on Leo Sharp, the real-life “Tata” who spent ten years transporting thousands of kilos of poison into the Midwest. To make all of this more sympathetic, screenwriter Nick Schenk (who also wrote the 2008 Eastwood classic Gran Torino) condenses the story from ten years to a dozen or so runs and makes Earl more financially desperate than Leo actually was. The most important difference, though, is what happens in court, which I won’t spoil.
I would have bet my house that no one could ever leap over John Wayne as Hollywood’s Greatest Ever, but here is Clint Eastwood still opening movies at age 88, still a major star after seven decades, and not just a star, but a major director — one responsible for five Best Picture nominees, two of them (Unforgiven – 1992, Million Dollar Baby – 2004) winners. Eastwood is also an accomplished musician and composer who has scored his own films.
No one even comes close to matching Eastwood’s longevity as a consequential artist.
Here’s hoping that both he and his values live forever.
UPDATE: This articles was updated to correct a factual error.