Review: The Mule (Clint Eastwood, 2018)

WARNING: Plot spoilers are contained within this review.

Based on a true story… A phrase that says ‘consider me for awards’. At least in Hollywood, where semi-biographical films dominate the award season. And there was suspicion that Eastwood’s The Mule might be a late contender. What with the elderly actor/director giving a fine measured performance in a film that is often paced gently and beautifully shot. But that is where it’s strengths end.

The Mule is about an elderly man, Earl (Eastwood), 90 years old, and a horticulturalist fallen on hard times. A man who has neglected his family for a business which has failed in the era of the internet.

He find himself offered work driving because of his clean license, and ends up transporting drugs for the Cartel.

He becomes the Cartel’s most successful mule, and evades an elaborate attempt by the DEA to identify him.

As the payloads get bigger, Earl seems to enjoy his dubious employment. He discovers his cargo and yet continues. He puts the profits into his daughter’s wedding, into rebuilding a local club for old folks. He buys himself back into the lives he has ruined.

The film opens with Earl missing his daughter’s wedding, preferring to buy a round for the wedding party of a group of strangers while attending a flower conference. He shows no guilt, no cognisance of his confused priority.

So when we see him packing his possessions into a truck as his home is foreclosed we don’t care. He’s popular with colleagues, but he has spurned his family.

Arriving at his granddaughter’s engagement party we see she idolises him, latching onto his postcards sent from his travel, and flying in the face of the frigid reception of his (ex)wife and daughter. Those he has let down. It is this fragile old man who gets brought in as an unwitting mule.

There’s humour, there’s some pathos, but overall it’s a narrative this reviewer struggled to care about. He isn’t particularly likeable, he’s just old. He dispenses wisdom that he never heeded himself. He’s an ex-veteran (yay, American hero) who knowingly continues furthering a drug trade that kills people (boo, traitor).

Women have no agency in The Mule. They exist only to be wives, wives-to-be, sex objects, servers, or women who are willing to overlook the distance and abuse of trust within the relationship because, well he’s Earl.

He’s presented as some sort of rather attractive character sexually, with older women clamouring around him at the convention. Dancing with the younger singers at the old people’s club. Then there’s the visit to the Cartel boss’s home, where a raucous pool party takes place. Where every woman is scantily dressed, and looking like an extra in a rap video. They grind each other, and wrap themselves around Earl’s frail frame. At first we don’t even see their faces, turned away from the camera as they are told what to do, as they cuddle up to the old man.

Twice in the film we see Earl getting fresh with two young women simultaneously. I’m pretty sure the whole reason The Mule exists is so 88 year old Clint Eastwood could have a three-way on screen.

From beginning to end this is a film of the Trumpian era. Mysogynistic to the core. Denying agency to females. Excusing racism because, well he’s an old man. Presenting the non-whites as powerless people, unless wielding a gun. The only good Mexican is a rich one. And he’s likely to get bumped off by the poorer of his nation.

Laurence Fishburne’s DEA boss is desk-bound and bows to Bradley Cooper’s DEA agent. Cooper’s partner is played by Michael Peña, who throws in some wit, but has little else to do. People of colour are not treated well. There’s an uncomfortable scene when Earl pulls over to help a young black family with their broken car, which serves more to facilitate use of a racist term than as an example of Earl’s inability to follow rules. He throws more racially charged language at his handlers during a café stop. And while the exchange with the ‘dykes with bikes’ is probably meant as an example of how Earl accepts things he doesn’t understand, it didn’t enamour him any further to me.

By the end of the film, Earl’s act of sitting in while his ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) dies of cancer, earns him the respect of his family that he does not deserve. Their cries of ‘I love you’ as he is jailed for his crimes, seem misplaced. But money has changed things, it has given him back his home, his community, his family. By money we mean the proceeds of crime. Even the DEA agents look sympathetic. There’s no penalty – he asks for jail, where he grows more plants, happily in his element.

If you’re old, it’s ok to be corrupt. It’s okay to illegally profit from corrupt regimes. It’s okay to be sexist. To be racist.

It is tempting to see this as a commentary on Trump and Trump’s America, and if this had been made by another director, I think that’s how we would read it. But it seems like more of an endorsement. In 2016 Eastwood told us to “get over it” with regards Trump’s racism and mysogyny, and that’s pretty much what we’re expected to do with Earl.

Eastwood as an actor is still engaging, but as a director, he’s misjudged, out of time and place.

– Robert JE Simpson

23 Jan 2019

The Mule, poster

The Mule (Clint Eastwood, 2018)

116 mins.

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