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‘The Mule’ (review)

Produced by Clint Eastwood, Tim Moore,
Kristina Rivera, Jessica Meier,
Dan Friedkin, Bradley Thomas

Screenplay by Nick Schenk
Based on The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old
Drug Mule by Sam Dolnick

Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper,
Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña,
Dianne Wiest, Andy García, Taissa Farmiga

 

Clint Eastwood holds an interesting position in the modern film industry. In a cinematic climate where every major star is quickly swallowed up by whatever mask and cape they don for the salivating public, Eastwood remains a fixture on pure name value alone, a privilege afforded to him for decades of iconic roles in front of the camera and a steady hand behind it.

As he enters twilight years, Eastwood’s choice of projects has become largely self-reflective, coming to terms with his own mortality and the life he’s lived.

His latest film, The Mule, finds the former Harry Callahan perhaps delivering the capstone to that nearly decade long battle with his self.

Eastwood stars as Earl Stone, a Korean war veteran turned florist. His decades long obsession with his work has alienated him from his wife (Dianne Wiest) and daughter (Alison Eastwood), a rift that’s only compounded by his granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga) getting married. When his long-time flower business is swallowed up by the rise of Internet based florists, Earl is forced into the lucrative world of drug running.

Though initially unaware of what is transporting, he quickly finds the financial rewards too attractive and begins to delve deeper and deeper into the drug cartel life. Meanwhile, two hotshot DEA agents (Bradley Cooper & Michael Peña) are hot on his trail.

What’s most surprising about the film is that it’s largely not a crime drama at all, but rather a comedy. Eastwood plays the material shockingly light, eschewing the familiar melodrama associated with the genre and instead turning it into a fanciful “outlaw out on the lam” story. The pacing and tone is freewheeling, reveling in the sense of fun that Early Stone is having with his newfound career.

In many ways, it recalls the likes of Eastwood’s 70s “road” movies, like Thunderbolt and Lightfoot or Every Which Way But Loose. A particular encounter between a charmingly ignorant Eastwood and a lesbian biker gang known as the “Dykes on Bikes” might go down as one of my favorite comedy moments of 2018.

Even Eastwood himself seems game to play Earl as a delightfully cheery old fellow. In a shocking turn against type, Eastwood isn’t a constantly tortured grump wracked by guilt and self-loathing. Sure, there’s plenty of that to be found (I’ll get into that more later), but for the most part, Earl is a social able, peppy, and takes even the seemingly worst of situations with stride. It’s a side of Eastwood that rarely gets to shine outside of the rare comedy vehicles he used to do and it’s nice to see him return to it in an era where his star has largely been defined as “grumpy old white dude”.

However, that’s not to say that The Mule isn’t a vehicle for Eastwood to work through his issues as it very much is. Earl Stone and Eastwood are parallels: the self-destructive work ethic, the emotionally distant personality, the strained family life, etc. It almost fits Eastwood like a glove and you can’t help but feel that every grimace and every smile he flashes as one of genuine relation to the material.

Eastwood’s colorful personal life is well documented, and this feels like he’s finally seeking atonement. In Gran Torino or Million Dollar Baby, there’s a theme of the substitution of the nuclear family by a surrogate, whether it’s a neighbor or a student.

However, there’s no escape in The Mule. Resentment and forgiveness are two sides of the same coin, one that’s never too late to be flipped for the better. The recent passing of actor and director Sondra Locke, one of Eastwood’s many longtime companion Sondra Locke adds an even more haunting sense of poignancy to the whole thing, a specter that almost to be watching over the whole thing of a past Eastwood is finally realizing he can’t run from.

Truth be told, if the film had largely focused on Eastwood it would have been stronger, but the DEA agent subplot feels a lot less inspired. Cooper and Peña feel largely detached from the proceedings, and outside of a chat in a Waffle House between Eastwood and Cooper, the duo don’t really have much to do. At 112 minutes, a significant portion of this could probably have been cut as it most of it simply amounts to “hey, we have to catch that guy!” and not much else.

Eastwood has never been one to shy away from his helicopter and crane shots, so it makes sense that a DEA sting would be prime for his style, but even then the tension in that subplot falls flat. Eastwood’s approach to directing has always been fast and cheap, embracing a minimalistic approach to shot composition. It works here since the story is so matter of fact, a peek into one man’s life without a sense of judgement other than that Eastwood for the character, and by extension, himself. It’s his story and we’re simply allowed to watch it unfold.

In a year where we lost Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood stands alone as the last great movie star of an era that has long since ended. At 88 years old, it’s very possible that this could be the last film he makes. It’s fitting then that The Mule serves as his capstone on his prolific career, an old dog reflecting on the tricks he never learned and those that he wished he had.

 

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