The Mule (2018)
Clint Eastwood is 88 years old and has a successful career spanning over six decades. During that time he has proved to be one of America’s most bankable box office stars and established himself as an actor and director of note among his peers. If The Mule turns out to be his swansong, then it is certainly a fitting end to a prestigious career. Because in many respects The Mule is a distillation of many of the themes and concepts, we’ve seen in previous Eastwood movies such as Gran Torino and The Unforgiven. Perhaps the core story of an ageing man trying to reconcile himself to a modern world and make peace with it, is in some way Eastwood commenting on the movie industry himself. It is very much his film and his performance underpins the proceedings.
Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) is a dedicated horticulturalist who has spent his life putting work before his family. While competing in a flower show he misses his daughter’s wedding which further strains family ties. However online sales soon take a toll on his cottage industry and Earl finds himself in danger of the bank foreclosing on his house. “The internet has ruined everything” he grumbles. Only his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) has any time for him. After a row with his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Weist) at a family function, Early is approached by one of the guests who suggests that he can get paid for “just driving”. His spotless record, along with his age and ethnicity, make him potentially very useful to the local drug cartel. Caught between a rock and hard place Earl agrees to do just one job and becomes a drug mule.
The Mule is a leisurely movie and despite being set in the violent world of international drugs trafficking, is not steeped in action or mayhem. It is a character driven film in which Eastwood’s performance dominates. Earl is a microcosm of the ongoing societal age divide. He is polite, traditional and struggles with contemporary etiquette. In one scene he helps a stranded African American family whose car has a puncture and clumsily refers to them as “negros”. It’s not something done out of malice and highlights how he’s just a product of his generation. Earl also builds a rapport with the minor foot soldiers of the cartel who he meats when collecting and dropping off his shipments. He asks after their families and discusses trivial everyday things, revealing that for these men are just doing “a job”, often in default of anything else.
Beyond Eastwood’s charismatic performance, some of the other plot elements of The Mule are somewhat perfunctory. The parallel story that sees DEA Agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) tracking the cartel and slowly closing in on its mules is functional but nothing more. The brief scene that Cooper and Eastwood share in a diner where they unwittingly swap homespun philosophy, is a little contrived. Also the machinations of the drug cartel and its internal power struggle is also just a functional plot device. However, the narrative does pick up in the third act where Eastwood and Wiest share several scenes together and reflect upon their failed marriage. It flirts dangerously with excessive sentimentality but mercifully stays on the right side of the line, due to solid acting and an air of earnestness.
The Mule lends itself to comparison with Robert Redford’s recent movie, The Old Man & the Gun. The latter is the better of the two, having a more nuanced plot and allowing the cast to contribute more to the proceedings. But because of the viewing public’s esteem for Clint Eastwood, I’m sure they will overlook the short comings of The Mule. As for the moral lesson that Earl is a “late bloomer” who finally learns that he needs to devote as much time to his family as to his flowers, it is a lesson that we can all reflect upon in todays busy world. Overall, despite a slow pace and numerous narrative digressions along the way, The Mule is a very accessible movie with the usually dour and grouchy Eastwood showing a far more amiable side to his persona. If it were any other actor, this would be a distinctly average movie.