The Mule finds Clint Eastwood on autopilot. Starring as Earl Stone, Eastwood plays an elderly man who, after his daylily business is foreclosed upon, is given a piece of information by an acquaintance of his granddaughter. That information brings Earl to a garage where a bag of “product” is hidden in his car. He then drives to a motel, leaves the truck briefly, and then returns to find a bag of money inside. Just like that, Earl becomes a drug mule for the cartel. It, like many of Eastwood’s recent efforts, is based on a true story which was documented in The New York Times by Sam Dolnick. Re-teaming Eastwood with screenwriter Nick Schenk (Gran Torino) Eastwood once more plays a racist Korean War veteran, a role the actor-director seems more than comfortable playing once again. Overall, The Mule has all of the pieces in play to be a good film, but lacks cohesion, and utterly refuses to grapple with the ethical concerns within its story.
For Eastwood, there is no wonder why he was drawn to the character of Earl Stone. He is a man who has to grapple with mistakes he made his entire life. As a passionate grower of daylilies, Earl never really came home. He missed anniversaries with his wife Mary (Dianne Wiest), missed his daughter Iris’ (Alison Eastwood) wedding, and seems set to start disappointing granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) too. His wife hates him. His daughter refuses to talk to him. He is an isolated man, only receiving sporadic calls from Ginny who is increasingly waking up to Earl’s focus on work, which continues into his time as a mule. Whether or not Eastwood missed similar events or disappointed his family in the same way as Earl, The Mule’s regretful and reflective tone is undoubtedly going to be quite personal for anybody knowingly approaching the end. It is a film about making amends, about trying to right those wrongs, and regretting that one did not wake up soon enough to realize they were wrong. In this, Eastwood does let Earl off the hook quite easily for his missteps, but it is a heartwarming enough story to overcome that issue. As he faces off with DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and urges him to not make the same mistakes he had, Eastwood’s genuine delivery and the understanding in Cooper’s eyes effectively sell the moment.
However, even as Eastwood thoroughly examines this man, The Mule struggles. Akin to the character portrayed by Burt Lancaster in Louis Malle‘s Atlantic City, Earl is a man whose time has long passed. He is lost on how to text, laments this generation’s lack of ability with changing tires, and the rise of the internet. His blind spots further extend to race and sexuality. Is he actively racist or homophobic? No. But, Earl does think black people are still called “negroes”, throws around harsher racial epithets, and is shocked to meet a “dykes on bikes” motorcycle group. The moments where these elements are introduced feel almost otherworldly, thrown in randomly during the course of the film, and then dispatched with only to never be brought up again later on. Plus, it is not particularly likely that a man can live for so long while having no idea that his terminology and expectations are a little out-of-date. Outside of Colin Bates mentioning how Earl has “no filter” or a hamfisted scene where a Hispanic man worries about being shot by the police after being pulled over, The Mule offers little pushback to Earl’s dated nature.
That said, the dated nature of Earl is hardly the most problematic element of The Mule. Instead, it is the sexism. The only female characters in the film with any amount of substance are Earl’s relatives, who only exist to be disappointed by Earl and forgive him, lacking any kind of arc in their own right. The remaining female characters are there to be objectified. This is evident in the two threesomes Earl partakes in, particularly the second, but especially an out-of-place scene that occurs in the middle of the film. Randomly having Earl meet the leader of the cartel, Laton (Andy Garcia), he begins to party with the cartel. As women in bikinis crowd around the pool, Eastwood’s camera scans around the room or lingers on a variety of women’s asses as they grind on Earl, Laton, or one another. It feels like something out of a music video, briefly pausing the film to offer some male gaze-infused shots that ramp up the film’s poor treatment of female characters to another level. It is a very weird, horribly constructed scene that never quite makes much sense in the context of the film.
Dealing with the ethics of the situation at hand or even weaving a compelling plot prove to be further issues in The Mule, with Eastwood apparently never being particularly concerned with either. As Earl turns his back on growing daylilies in favor of running drugs for the cartel, he is portrayed as being entirely oblivious to the fact he is running drugs.When he realizes, the man seems hardly perturbed. Instead, he silently accepts and embraces every unsavory bit of the new life his new career affords him. All the while, The Mule tries to reassure the audience that he really is a good guy. He donates money to the local VFW, pays off Ginny’s education, and makes amends with his family. This lopsided treatment of Earl extends to the cartel, showing him pal around with tough cartel guys who are inexplicably understanding of Earl’s situation. It is a particularly surreal situation, humanizing cartel members to this degree and completely overlooking the fact they, along with Earl, are distributing drugs and/or are extremely violent.
The aforementioned inappropriate scenes only further exemplify a larger problem for The Mule, in Eastwood’s reliance on a variety of crime genre cliches without much elaboration.. There is the mutiny against Laton, there is the criminal case being built by Colin, and there is Earl running drugs, but all of them seem to either interfere with one another or not be of much concern to Eastwood. The mutiny comes and goes without any real ramifications on the plot. The police element is largely reserved to Laurence Fishburne‘s DEA agent explaining where they are in the case and telling Colin to wrap it up- this same scene is frustratingly repeated several times. The drug running element is largely boiled down to Earl driving, singing along to old tunes (he is out of step with today, get it?), and having threesomes. By the end, the film lacks much cohesion, and its various elements feel as though they were taken out of different films and smashed into one, making The Mule an oddly confusing, uncertain film that never quite finds its footing. It simply never dedicates the time to any of its plot elements, rendering them all rather stilted in the end.
A disappointing late-career effort from Clint Eastwood, The Mule’s interesting, if lightweight, character work does not really save it, and there are few other positives to be found. The entire cast, aside from Eastwood, is underutilized in the name of pursuing a scattershot, unfocused, and indecisive plot, while the underlying sexism further holds the film back. Though Eastwood adequately captures the feeling of a 1970s-1980s crime drama/character study, The Mule lacks the same power, resonance, and skill that made some of its inspirations compelling. Instead, it appears Eastwood is content to use his film as an excuse to complain about the current generation and marvel at how much this world has changed, while offering little in the way of insight or entertainment.