Whatever you think about Clint Eastwood, as director and actor, The Mule is not the film to change your mind. Myself, I persist in admiring the sinewy minimalism and directness of his style, his utter refusal to sentimentalise even when sentiment is called for. When he's working with actual professional actors, as he is here, I even enjoy how he stays out of their way except to encourage the same kind of flat curtness that goes with the visuals. We're a hell of a long way from his first 2018 release, The 15:17 to Paris, that is to say. If it turns out, as Eastwood has been maintaining, that he's retiring after this movie, I don't think anybody could possibly argue with a straight face that he's gone out on a particularly high point (though it's above-average by the dodgy standards of his filmography in the 2010s). But it's not a low point either. The film only has one obvious goal, and it pursues it without fuss: present a character study of a man whose life is almost entirely full of regrets coming to grips with the knowledge that he's been pretty lousy for most of his many years on the planet and can't really undo any of that now, though he can at least stop lying to himself about it.

It's a role cosily within Eastwood's wheelhouse as an actor, designed to appeal first and foremost to viewers who want to see him doing his thing one last time. In this respect, if not really in any other, it makes a good pair with The Old Man & the Gun, 2018's other feature film seemingly designed solely to facilitate the audience enjoying time in the the company of one of the most iconic movie stars of the 1970s by depicting a true-enough story of an amiable criminal. If The Mule ends up being the more thoughtful and consequential of the two, that's as much a part of the star persona as anything: while Robert Redford has certainly made movies that demand a reckoning from the viewer, he's generally been a charismatic movie star, and while Eastwood has made his share of blithe hang-out movies, asking us to feel sort of dismal and shitty about the bitterness of life and how his character is in particular less admirable than we want him to be has been part of his brand for almost as long as that brand has existed. So it is with The Mule, which doesn't do anything even vaguely new, except have Eastwood be in his late 80s while being run through his paces.

The film, fictionalised and adapted Nick Schenk from a New York Times Magazine article, centers on several months in the life of Earl Stone (Eastwood), a 90-year-old horticulturalist who has won national awards for his lilies, and who has alienated nearly every member of his family: his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) won't even speak to him ever since the fateful day that he skipped her wedding to go to a convention (dramatised in a sequence notable primarily for the terrifying de-aging makeup Clint is wearing), and his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) talks only when it is to express how disappointed she is in him. Only his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) is at all interested in keeping him around, as she prepares for her own wedding. Meanwhile, Earl's beloved nursery has been foreclosed from underneath him, and he's got nowhere to go and nothing to do but be a crabby old pest. Circumstances that are so crudely written that I do not wish to even summarise them transpire, and then Earl finds himself, at first unwittingly, then reluctantly, then with great relish, driving shipments of cocaine for a Mexican cartel from El Paso to Chicago, roughly once a month, and with ever-increasing paydays. He becomes such a reliable high-volume drug mule, in fact, that Agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper), a rising star in the DEA who has just arrived in the Chicago field office, decides to take it upon himself to track down this mysterious new figure who has somehow managed to completely elude law enforcement.

The film isn't nearly ignorant of society or politics as its critics (operating in remarkably bad faith) would have it - the foundation of everything is that an elderly white man can be the perfect mule precisely because nobody would think of an elderly white man as a criminal, and this is all but explicitly connected to Earl's belated discovery that he's been able to live his entire life as a real asshole without every having to face consequences for it - but it's really not trying to say much of anything about the world. It's almost exclusively a snapshot of one old man's heavy feelings of regret, played with great proficiency by Eastwood, who allows his extraordinarily leathery body to do most of the work of differentiating Earl from every other old man with heavy feelings of regret that the actor has played in the last three decades. But it is an extraordinarily leathery body, and Eastwood-the-director is smart enough to know that simply allowing the visible years on Eastwood-the-actor's face to linger in front of the camera is enough to great a powerful emotional impact.

Beyond sketching out a sturdy, if unsurprising character study, the other thing The Mule cares about is being pleasant to watch; it's not quite that it's a comedy - too much suffering, sadness, and loneliness for that - but it has a lightness of tone that's at least atypical for the director. It's a road movie, first and foremost, with the local color and moments of amusing quietude that promises - Earl singing in a ragged voice to various country songs, at one point getting the cartel handlers tailing him to sing along; Earl raving about pulled pork; Earl outwitting various cops and federal agents. It's a lightness that comes from resolutely refusing to cast the protagonist as a tragic figure: he fucked up, deserves to be taken to task for it, and we can still enjoy his company for what it is before that happens. That brightness is probably the single best thing about The Mule: it is not groundbreaking, and it suffers from inordinately bad exposition (there's really not a single good moment in the first 15 minutes), and it is extremely incurious. But it is an easy sit, one that lets Eastwood do one last victory lap for those us who want to cheer him on, and that is that.