At a time when Hollywood is cautiously playing by the rules, Clint Eastwood continues to create rules of his own. The hero in his new release, The Mule, is not a revered sniper (American Sniper) or a legendary pilot (Sully), but a politically incorrect, geriatric screwup. He is portrayed not by Bradley Cooper, who’s relegated to a supporting role, but by the 88-year-old Eastwood himself, looking fragile and a bit confused. When the plot goes astray, its problems relate not to an anticipated outburst of Dirty Harry violence but to scenes that may strike filmgoers as marginally maudlin.

The Mule won’t be a box office hit like Gran Torino, and it won’t win surprise Oscars like Million Dollar Baby, but it will reinforce Eastwood’s credentials as America’s most productive, autonomous and idiosyncratic filmmaker. Warner Bros released it the movie with little hoopla — a modest campaign, no print ads, no appearances on late-night TV. The critics were respectful, if a bit perplexed: Why would the filmmaker who gave us Outlaw Josey Wales or J Edgar or Jersey Boys or The 15:17 to Paris invest his talents in The Mule?

One reason: The Mule is, perversely, a family picture. Eastwood portrays an elderly man, broke and depressed, who enlists with the drug cartel as a courier, making harrowing journeys interrupted by flashback encounters with angry wife and children, who add to his depression. Throughout his journeys, he continues to say all the wrong thing and hang with the wrong women. The third act represents more of a fade-out than a shootout.

Eastwood clearly did not design The Mule to augment his revenue stream. At his age, he is marginally bankable and insurable as star or director. Warner Bros faithfully distributes his mid-budget films ($40 million-$60 million) hedging its bets with financial partners, as with Mule and Million Dollar Baby. His following is also aging: 80% of ticket buyers are 35 or older — a slimmer demo but one that will likely remain loyal throughout the holidays.

To cineastes, Eastwood represents the ultimate anomaly, a Western star, but also an artist and proficient musician. He is a unifying figure, but also the eccentric guy who talked to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention and who engaged in a bitter palimony suit with the recently deceased Sondra Locke. As early as 1980, Barbara Walters jousted with him on TV about his supposed reputation as a sexist and gun lover, all of which he dismissed with a firm denial and a sly smile.

Paint Your Wagon
“Paint Your Wagon”

Despite his gaffes, Eastwood always seemed to know how to play the system. Once claiming he became an actor mainly because he coveted the girls in his acting class, he shrewdly hid a keen ambition beneath his “aw shucks” cowboy demeanor. As a young TV actor, he spied Universal’s boss, Lew Wasserman, emerging from his black tower, and personally pitched his first directing gig. He got the deal.

I enjoyed my many conversations with him at various stages of his career, appreciating both his drive and his carefully consistent veneer of modesty. “I can afford an occasional flop as a working director since I’m also a working actor,” he told me during the shoot of Paint Your Wagon, a famous flop in which Eastwood crooned some songs. He had no illusions about his singing chops, but pointed out that he carried a tune better than co-star Lee Marvin.

As a risk-taker, he admitted his uncertainty about shooting both Flags of Our Father and Letter from Iwo Jima, effectively viewing the brutality of war from contradictory points of view. His use of the real-life players in 15:17 to Paris was also a risky exercise in cinema verite. Throughout his work, however, his self-discipline has been rigorous: Eastwood started shooting The Mule in April, finished shooting at the end of August and showed his cut to the studio a month later, proposing the same December release date of many of his earlier pictures.

But there’s been no Oscar blitz this year, despite the uniqueness of the project and despite his poignant performance. And despite the fact that he’s Clint Eastwood.