We’re only a few weeks into 2019, and yet we already have two films vying for the title of the oddest addition to the filmography and self-mythology of an auteur many of us had thought past their prime – but where one of them succeeds thanks to an inimitable level of style, formal control and a fascinating attempt to deconstruct our modern need for the grand mythology of superhero storytelling (hot take: that would be M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Glass’, a film I’m as shocked as you are to hear that I liked), the other is the movie where Clint Eastwood has multiple threesomes, cracks some very expected old-man-versus-the-internet jokes, and half-heartedly learns not to use racial epithets while also delivering the immortal line “you’re welcome, dykes.”
That’s right, in a battle between the directors of ‘The Happening’ and ‘Unforgiven’, I’m gonna go with the man who brought us those killer plants.
However, that’s not to say that ‘The Mule’, Eastwood’s thirty-seventh feature as director, is entirely without merit. The film tells the story of Earl Stone, a 90-year-old war veteran and horticulturalist who becomes a Mexican drug cartel’s titular employee after falling on hard financial times, inspired by the real-life story of Leo Sharp, as documented in a New York Times article. With no criminal record, his deeply ingrained societal privilege as an Old White Man, and decades of experience driving across the country, it takes no time at all for Earl to become a prized asset for the cartel, moving millions of dollars worth of cocaine and collecting a tidy profit. As he uses the money to help rebuild his struggling community and to try and reconcile with his hostile family, who he long neglected in favour of his career, he also attracts the attention of the DEA, personified in Bradley Cooper’s dutifully engaged performance as the lead agent hot on his trail.
SWITCH: 'THE MULE' TRAILER
Though the majority of the film is dedicated to that last point, it’s in the relationship with his family and his reckoning with those failings that the film actually becomes interesting – at least in theory. In deconstructing this ageing workhorse, a man who has always placed his facility for a job well done and the praise he consequently receives from others above the needs of his family, Eastwood seems to be drawing a rather direct line to his own life, and his own shortcomings as a husband and father. It doesn’t seem like coincidence that he casts his own daughter, Alison Eastwood, as his onscreen daughter, whose wedding he chooses to miss in the film’s efficiently all-caps prologue where we instead see him schmoozing his way around a celebration of his own horticultural prowess. It also doesn’t seem like a coincidence that it was at this film’s premiere where he first publicly acknowledged the existence of another daughter, 64-year-old Laurie Eastwood, whose existence he had long denied even when it was made public over twenty years ago.
Indeed, there’s an odd sort of self-reflection going on here, even for a film directed by its lead actor. Whenever Eastwood directs himself, he always seems to cast himself as these ageing anti-heroes, in contrast to the unabashed heroism he finds in the leads of his other films like ‘Sully’, ‘The 15:17 to Paris’, ‘Invictus’ or ‘American Sniper’ (however dubious it was in that last one). It’s a fascinating self-lacerating streak that hasn’t appeared since 2008’s ‘Gran Torino’, though always comes at the expense of any sort of character shading for anyone else but him. Here, it saddles a great actress like Dianne Wiest, and a promising actress like Taissa Farmiga, with such thinly drawn caricatures and hokey, on-the-nose expository dialogue that even they are left adrift, unable to make anything feel real or lived-in between constant bouts of accusatory screaming detailing exactly how this man has done them wrong. Eastwood, on the other hand, is a solid presence throughout; clearly able to match his performance style to his one-and-done approach to directing that visibly hobbles many of his co-stars.
Playing more like an amiable road movie than the tense thriller the advertising promised, the film struggles to build any sort of momentum as the drama slowly fizzles to its expected conclusion.
Though it is nice to see 88-year-old Eastwood delivering a sturdy, appropriately conflicted lead performance in a film with fascinating meta-textual connotations, it can’t make up for the fact that the film itself is a bit of a snooze. Playing more like an amiable road movie than the tense thriller the advertising promised, the film struggles to build any sort of momentum as the drama slowly fizzles to its expected conclusion. Subplots with Cooper and the DEA and Wiest and the family constantly replay the same beats, thuddingly relaying the same lines of dialogue to hit the same thematic points until the climax seems to just, well, happen. And that’s to say nothing of the painful attempts at humour, or the boringly lascivious way Eastwood films a party scene apparently inhabited only by scantily-clad butts belonging to faceless women, or the particularly strangely-played scene of a Latino driver getting pulled over for a routine traffic stop and understandably knowing full well how fraught a situation that is for a person of colour – a scene which elicited laughter from the mostly white audience I saw it with in an especially uncomfortable moment.
With its self-reflexive thematic underpinning and its eminently watchable lead performance, ‘The Mule’ is at least a noble failure, though definitely not without its surfeit of problems. If you do want a weird auteurist vision from a director with his fair share of duds, go see the Shyamalan instead – even if it does have significantly less threesomes.