Both ten­der apolo­gia and vig­or­ous justi­ica­tion, Clint East­wood’s “The Mule” is a deeply, fas­ci­nat­ingly per­sonal med­i­ta­tion from the 88-year-old direc­tor who, like his aged drug mule pro­tag­o­nist, has spent a long time on the road. “The Mule” is the in­de­fati­ga­ble East­wood’s sec­ond ilm just this year, fol­low­ing “The 15:17 to Paris,” a dis­tinctly un­dra­matic drama­ti­za­tion of the thwarted 2015 train at­tack, star­ring the real-life he­roes.

East­wood isn’t play­ing him­self in “The Mule” — far from it — but it’s hard not to ap­pre­ci­ate, and be moved by, the ilm’s many echoes for the ilm­maker, act­ing for the irst time in one of his own since 2008’s sim­i­larly self-relec­tive “Gran Torino.”

That he inds such in­ti­mate di­men­sions in the story of Leo Sharp is a tes­ta­ment to both East­wood’s knack for pared-down el­egy and to the lean script by Nick Schenk that en­vi­sions larger Amer­i­can themes within its geri­atric drug courier. Sharp was ar­rested at age 87 with 104 ki­los of co­caine in the back of his pickup while en route to Detroit. Lit­tle in the World War II vet­eran’s ap­pear­ance sug­gested his se­cret iden­tity. Sharp, it was dis­cov­ered, was among the most pro­lific re­gional smug­glers for the Si­noloa car­tel. The hard-to-be­lieve tale was re­counted by The New York Times’ Sam Dol­nick, an ar­ti­cle that’s been adapted here.

“The Mule” takes plenty of lib­er­ties with Sharp’s story — East­wood’s smug­gler is named Earl Stone, and is a Korean War vet — just as it has found cu­ri­ous par­al­lels for its star. Some of them are silly. Some are pro­found. But rarely does “The Mule” — for bet­ter and worse — not re­ver­ber­ate with East­wood’s own mythol­ogy in in­trigu­ing, if some­times painfully awk­ward ways.

East­wood’s Stone is a cel­e­brated hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist whose spe­cialty is the daylily, a frag­ile lower that blooms for 24 hours a year. In the ilm’s early scenes, we see him, dressed in a seer­sucker suit, dish­ing out jokes while be­ing fawned over by fans. East­wood has made celebrity a reg­u­lar sub­ject, (the Capt. Ch­es­ley Sul­len­berger of his “Sully” re­sented the spot­light). But the direc­tor has found his most pe­cu­liar metaphor for his own fame in a hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist who wins at the daylily equiv­a­lent of the Os­cars. But Stone’s lily farm runs into hard times. Dolling out cash to his His­panic work­ers, he mut­ters, “Damned in­ter­net. It ru­ins ev­ery­thing.”

Like “Gran Torino” (also penned by Schenk) there are plenty of such old-man lines in “The Mule,” some de­light­ful, some less so. We learn that Stone has long been es­tranged from his bit­ter ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wi­est) and his equally fu­ri­ous daugh­ter Iris (Al­i­son East­wood, the direc­tor’s daugh­ter), though his grand­daugh­ter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) has kept the faith.

To help pay for Ginny’s wed­ding, Stone fol­lows a tip that leads him to a non-de­script auto shop. Car­tel mem­bers put a bag of drugs in his beat-up Ford pickup, hand him a phone and tell him to re­spond to any call or text. “Text?” he replies. Af­ter reach­ing his des­ti­na­tion, Stone inds a wad of cash in the glove com­part­ment.

Many more trips and more ki­los fol­low, and the leg­end of the smug­gler known as “Tata” (grandpa) be­gins to grow, at­tract­ing the at­ten­tion of the car­tel king­pin (Andy Gar­cia). At the same time, a DEA in­ves­ti­ga­tion (Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena co-star as agents) is clos­ing in. But they, too, aren’t im­mune to the su­peri­cial ways of the modern world, and are pressed to make “a splash” for politi­cians and press.

Baked into “The Mule” is a sense of chang­ing Amer­ica squeez­ing out the reg­u­lar Joe. Stone has oc­ca­sional en­coun­ters — giv­ing a re­pair sug­ges­tion to a les­bian biker, ix­ing a tire for a cou­ple he refers to as “Ne­groes” — that seem in­tended to show he’s a good ol’ guy, even if he doesn’t know the po­lit­i­cally cor­rect lingo. “The Mule” isn’t un­con­cerned with racism, but these scenes are re­ally just for a laugh. Worse, I found, was scene that par­o­died the anx­i­ety of a Latino man wrongly pulled over by the po­lice.

A ilm about an old white guy work­ing for a Mex­i­can car­tel called for more cu­rios­ity to those around Stone. There isn’t a His­panic char­ac­ter (or woman) in “The Mule” that rises above a stereo­type, an irony con­sid­er­ing Stone’s suc­cess is pred­i­cated on not look­ing like a typ­i­cal smug­gler.

And yet there’s still a po­tent, clas­si­cally East­wood para­ble here about ek­ing out a lit­tle bit of free­dom in an Amer­ica that seems to al­ways be tight­en­ing the noose. Even the low-level car­tel guys get a new, un­for­giv­ing boss.

And as “The Mule” am­bles to­ward its con­clu­sion, it draws closer to Stone, and maybe to East­wood’s legacy, too. Much of the movie mea­sures tem­po­rary plea­sures (from a mo­tel three­some to the leet­ing bloom of a lily) with long-term guilt. When Stone makes a reck­on­ing with his ex-wife and daugh­ter (East­wood’s late scenes with Wi­est are the best in the ilm), it’s hard not to won­der if East­wood (whose ex­pan­sive fam­ily at­tended the ilm’s pre­miere) is chan­nel­ing his own mis­giv­ings over a non­stop ca­reer. “I thought it was more im­por­tant to be some­body out there,” he says, “than a damned fail­ure in my own home.”

Dianne Wi­est (left) and Clint East­wood in a scene from ‘The Mule.’

Taissa Farmiga (cen­tre) and Clint East­wood in a scene.

Al­i­son East­wood and Clint East­wood in a scene from ‘The Mule.’

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