With The Mule, Clint Eastwood takes his third last ride, and he could not have chosen a worst time to do it.
Ten years ago (pre MAGA-era, and yes that unfortunately makes a difference), in the last production he both directed and starred, Gran Torino, the growling violence and racism of Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski was given narrative context and earned redemption, making it the perfect would-be swan song. The Mule offers neither, and the many despicable attributes of its lead character are left out to dry in a picture that is never particularly good.
Maybe the 88-year-old icon is content, or perhaps hell bent on only playing characters who scowl at political correctness (as much as I love him, the man did speak to an empty chair for a long while…), as they prepare for their last ride. But with this being the second movie of his in 2018 – the first being the experimental, not-so-well-received film, The 15:17 To Paris – and with a steady flow of gritty, patriotic, and often historical pieces (American Sniper, Sully), it doesn’t seem like Eastwood is ready to leave. Hell, I don’t want him to leave, either – him repeating “this is the last one” in the trailer has kept me in fanboy despair for months – but if the book were to close right now, and the legend sealed, Gran Torino should have been the last one, not The Mule.
Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk (who also wrote Gran Torino) have crafted this film around the real story of Leo Sharp, a 90-something World War II veteran who has to be among the most proficient drug mules in history, at one point bringing over 200 kilos of cocaine into Chicago monthly. The details of his life were left a mystery to the media, but Eastwood and Schenk take creative liberties filling in the holes, often with *very* dry humor and a looseness unsuitable in the murderous world of the cartel.
This man’s name is Earl Stone (Eastwood), a horticulturist first seen in the film’s 2005 prologue accepting awards at a daylily convention clad in a bowtie and a wide smile; a smile not at all affected by his missing his daughter Iris’ wedding (the bride played by the director’s real daughter, Alison Eastwood). A few beats later, twelve years have come and gone, and so has the smile. The internet has killed Earl’s business, leading the bank to foreclose on him, and neither his daughter, nor his ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) want anything to do with him – his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) is the only exception.
And it’s at an event for Ginny that a young man approaches Earl with a fateful money-making opportunity. “Just for driving?” Earl asks; it’s the first time Earl’s personality perfectly embodies the con. Soon, he, an old white driver who doesn’t dare surpass the speed limit, is comfortably transporting cocaine across the country.
It’s during these moments, as Earl’s naivety and almost lackadaisical methodology to the drug game take hold that The Mule soars. Great joy can be found in the simplicity of Eastwood on the road as he nods his head and joins in on the tunes of Dean Martin and company, and I smiled with Earl as he took the time to crunch down on one tasty-looking pulled pork sandwich. The handlers he was with did not join in on our amusement.
However, this ignorance, though playful in the crime ring, jaggedly translates to the other aspects of Earl’s social interactions, and makes an especially nasty impression when he starts approaching those who are not “like” him (i.e. old white men).
The film quickly transitions from little things here and there like a mockingly overplayed Nazi impression to almost scornfully and entirely useless displays of discrimination. In Gran Torino, race-based gangs and violence were rampant around the Eastwood character, and by the end of it, Walt’s newfound understanding of respect made the pill of his occasional “zipper head” label easier to swallow. These comments, or at least the intended effect of them, do not translate over well to The Mule.
But the depiction of Earl’s home life isn’t good either, as The Mule force feeds us scenes of awkward family events plagued by his presence. Rather lazy writing makes veteran performers like Wiest in the family portions, and later Bradley Cooper – who plays the DEA agent assigned to tracking down Earl, or “Tata” as he’s known across the cartel – in the investigative ones look like amateurs. And a late, undeserved settlement between Earl and his family demand poor Alison Eastwood transition from banishment to accompaniment in a matter of minutes.
The Mule never became the action-filled, epic battle of the superstars that the trailers led me to believe it’d be – though one scene involving Eastwood and Cooper in a diner feels like a lighter-hearted call to Heat. This was obviously intended. Eastwood, playing a character actually older than him and with similar flaws (with a career that expands almost 60 years, he also has seven kids and two ex-wives), deploys no ego here, and proves his self-awareness, portraying Earl as the comparatively defenseless old man he would realistically be. Earl doesn’t have a gun, and never once asks the punks around them if they feel lucky. But as disappointing as many aspects of this film are, I would be remiss if I didn’t say it was nice to see Clint on the big screen. Hopefully this isn’t the last one.
Poorly written and with hardly any thrills, The Mule disappointingly depends on the amiability of Eastwood’s character, whose extreme social ineptness is far beyond the redeeming powers of star power.