The Mule a slight piece of post-modernism
Clint Eastwood’s The Mule succeeds more as a piece of post-modern cinematic reflection rather than an engaging narrative, and that’s fine. Very few actors have been as conscious of their screen image as the Oscar winner and he’s never been shy about commenting on it. In many ways, The Mule seems to be the director’s final word on his career and persona. As with most of the films he’s helmed over the last decade, this is based on a true story (the New York Times Magazine article titled “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year Old Drug Mule”), yet there’s no denying that some elements of the actor’s life have been woven into this tale as it ultimately plays out as a better-late-than-never apology to his family.
Expert horticulturist Earl Stone (Eastwood) has always put his work before his family. Paying far more attention to his flowers, his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) have completely cut him off. Making matters worse, his business has failed and he suddenly finds himself with nowhere to go. However, a chance meeting puts him in contact with low-level players in a Mexican drug cartel who recognize that this unassuming 90-year-old man might have the makings of being a successful drug mule. Sure enough, after a couple of successful runs, Stone finds the size of his deliveries increasing as well as the amount of cash he’s making, thousands of undeclared dollars he uses to help others and mend some familial fences.
There’s an easygoing nature to the film as well as Eastwood’s performance. It’s obvious he’s having a good time here, warbling oldies as he makes one cross-country trip after another. His Stone is a bit too naive to be believed, his doddering nature beguiling the hardened drug runners, none more so than the cartel’s leader, Laton (Andy Garcia). The screenplay by Nick Schenck (Gran Torino) moves steadily from one predictable moment to the next. And while there are no surprises, that’s fine – this movie is more about moments tailor-made for its star, opportunities for Eastwood to glower as only he can or effortlessly deliver one more cynical comeback.
The movie steps outside the narrative twice to wonderful effect. A scene between the on-screen father and daughter is very much a reflection of the relationship between the off-screen parent and child as Stone apologizes to Iris for having missed her wedding and other sins. One can’t help but think that this is Eastwood trying to make amends for his frequent absences due to his career. Then, late in the movie, a conversation in a diner between Stone and Drug Enforcement Administration agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) plays like a passing of the torch between one cinema icon to the next, a moment suffused with more cinematic history than narrative heft.
There are more than a few missed opportunities here as Eastwood shies away from making any sort of political or social statement though there are many issues at play. While he stops short of endorsing international drug-running, he does make it look like something of a lark, a convenient opportunity for seniors to earn supplemental income and nothing more. As for how our country treats those in their golden years, this disregard is touched on as a plot point and little else.
In the end, The Mule is a satisfactory entertainment, and if you’re an Eastwood fan you’ll likely forgive its shortcomings. It certainly won’t go down as one of the director’s best but it’s no embarrassment either, a pleasant final ride with one of cinema’s most enduring and significant figures. If this winds up being his last on-screen appearance, well, he certainly could have done worse.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.