Clint gets back in the acting saddle, probably really for the last time, this time – unless we get that final Dirty Harry sequel – and, if Green Book is accused of being a product of a different era, the charge could be levelled at The Mule, with bells on. Eastwood positively revels in playing a not-always-too-likeable, un-PC old goat, with the get-out that drug mule Earl Stone is a very flawed man, so this is a journey of redemption. Ironically, given Clint’s been exclusively concentrating on calling the shots in the meantime, this is the near-nonagenarian’s best movie in a decade, since the last time he directed himself.
It’s scarcely credible that The Mule was based on a true story (of Leo Sharp). Not because the account of the world’s oldest drug mule (well, caught one anyway) is inconceivable, but because the various tropes, clichés and character beats infused into Nick Schenk’s adaptation of Sam Dolnick’s New York Times article result in exactly the same kind of heroising by reformed outlook he lent to, yes, Gran Torino.
Clint’s Korean war vet is a failed husband and father, too invested in is daylilies to pay them much heed. However, you’d think they were at fault, so unswervingly hardened against him are they (except for Taissa Farmiga’s devoted granddaughter). So, when circumstances look to further underscore his dereliction of duties, he turns to a spot of providential drug couriering for a Mexican cartel. Before long, he’s swimming in cash and thawing out his family’s long-frozen feelings towards him. Luckily too, no one’s much interested in finding out where his loot came from (including, presumably his mortgage lender).
The triumph of his family returned isn’t overly convincing, particularly on the part of his daughter, played by Clint’s very own Alison. But because Clint’s style – or lack thereof – is so understated, even the corniest material passes without truly sticking in the craw. And there’s a great ex-wife performance from Dianne Wiest, even though there’s nothing very rewarding for her to work with; she’s there to loathe Clint, then find him charming because he has loot (despite saying that isn’t why), and then die so he can be there nursing her and so add to the pile of redeeming acts he’s building up.
The picture is modelled around saying Earl’s alright really, and he kind of is, despite being not; he isn’t just a bad husband, he’s a thoroughly unreconstituted, reactionary so-and-so, railing against cell phones and a generation with no practical skills, showing off his racism (but not really) and bigotry (but not really), none of which matters because he’s a fair minded, equal-opportunities curmudgeon at heart.
Look at the way he’s getting on with the cartel’s foot soldiers in no time, even the nasty but actually just misunderstood lieutenant (Ignacio Serricchio). Look at how chummy he becomes with “nice” drug lord Andy Garcia (still showing a flash of younger, carefree Andy occasionally, back when he had a bit of an edge). Look at how, despite repeatedly professing to be in no position to know better, he dispenses wisdom to DEA Special Agent Bradley Cooper (although, to be fair to the latter, he does play it as if he might be humouring the old man).
And look at the way he resigns himself to his fate and punishment at the end, espousing his guilt to the tears of his now-devoted family. And yet, this means he gets to return to his beloved horticulture, so there’s a silver lining. We’re supposed to love Earl for his transgressions, and be on board with the pearl of truth in his tutting at the younger generation. And in Clint’s mind, I’m guessing we’re supposed to yell “You go, great-grandad” when he has a threesome (twice!) despite it being as queasy-making and uncomfortable as seeing Alfred Steptoe leching away.
The thing is, despite there being many ways this could have been told better, simply by tinkering with the character arcs and making it a little less fixated on building up Earl’s stature, as a piece of storytelling The Mule largely succeeds. The direction is as languorous as ever from Clint, who has only ever been as good as his screenplays (he is not a creative director), but this one has a natural motor propelling it, thanks to Schenk signposting the DEA’s interest even before Earl even embarks on his first run, and then pacing the unfolding according to these runs. Cooper and Pena (a fairly thankless role for the latter, even more so for Larry Fishburne as their boss) don’t have an awful lot of note to do, but like Wiest, they do it well.
And Clint, who hasn’t appeared on screen in six years, is still able to hold his own in a scene (although, bizarrely, he looks older when he’s playing his decade-younger self in the opening than he does in the rest of the movie); ever since he talked to a chair in 2012, his politics have been a too-easy means to reprimand him, but anyone with their eyes half open could have done that forty years earlier and any time between.
Ostensibly, this is a tale of a man atoning for past sins and accepting he deserves to be punished for them. But as with Gran Torino, Clint and Schenk use it as a rather crude means to venerate Earl, leaving him on a note of wistful melancholy. Which is the story of Eastwood the star’s career, so probably about right for a swan song. I’m reasonably sure they cut Clint getting pistol-whipped because it was considered too brutal to see a very senior citizen having the shit kicked out of him, even one who once did it to others on screen for a living. The court proceedings also seemed somewhat truncated, but that’s all good, since the picture wisely didn’t outstay its welcome.
The Mule’s an affable movie despite not being remotely challenging, even unto itself, fitting more into the kind of lead-actor pictures the director was churning out during the ’90s than the biographical fare he’s had such a patchy time with of late.