The first half or so of The Mule, Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial feature (and his second this year), shows promise as a story about an octogenarian man finding purpose through a new job and the odd humors that come with any working environment.
Eastwood stars as Earl Stone, once a successful horticulturist and now reduced to work as a drug mule — driving cocaine across the U.S. for Mexican cartels. Earl doesn’t think much about the impact his chosen profession has on the populace at large; the money is pretty great and he enjoys the drive. He comes to joke around with the cartel lackeys who he interacts with, and his affable personality makes him a popular presence all the way up to Laton (Andy Garcia), the kingpin of the cartel.
The superficial pleasures of Eastwood engaging with comedic material are real, and the way that the screenplay by Nick Schenk (who also wrote Gran Torino) satirizes aspects of post-retirement busywork by translating it into drug trafficking hits a good wavelength.
There’s something more to The Mule, though, and the last half brings home the fact that no matter what wry smiles Eastwood affects, he’s still not capable of true self-reflection. Although not deifying a “hero against the government” (Sully) or American military men (The 15:17 to Paris or American Sniper), The Mule finds itself nonetheless enamored with one of the key appeals found in most material aimed at older men: The idea of getting away with it.
What starts as an off-kilter workplace comedy becomes another elderly celebrity forgiving himself for the sins of his youth. The contours of the story — a man so consumed by work that he forgets why he’s working (i.e., his wife and children ) — is standard, as is the inevitable ending where the women forgive him and want him around without any real contrition on his part.
It’s a frustrating direction to take a story that features Eastwood’s character engaging in two (!) threesomes with buxom women through the story, only thinking of his family when his ex-wife is on her deathbed. Do we know what Earl was doing back in the the day, out on the road, sending checks back to his family? We’re never told he did anything that would break the bonds of family, but it’s pretty easy to see this being a guy with multiple mistresses; after all, when he’s kicked out of his granddaughter’s wedding shower because his daughter and ex-wife have no interest in seeing him, he’s quick to call his ex-wife a bitch.
It’s just kind of lame. It isn’t so much that the sexual politics are outdated, it’s that the story attempts to find depth and instead wraps itself in a pretzel trying to wring out character growth for Earl that simply doesn’t exist. It reminds me of The Wolf of Wall Street, a movie of superficial pleasures that ultimately felt more like an infomercial for a hedonistic lifestyle than a lesson: Nothing that happens to Earl causes him to really change who he is and what he’s doing from the start of the movie to the end. And yet, he arguably wins.
I was recently having lunch with my grandfather, and he likes to hear about the Midwest Film Journal. He doesn’t watch movies much. He’s also pretty conservative and knows I’m not, and will sometimes made snarky asides about things. I told him about The Mule (prior to having seen it), and mentioned how it wasn’t up for many awards.
“People just aren’t interested in American values anymore,” he snidely said to another friend at our table. Eastwood has made a name for himself among older, more conservative audiences due to his longevity and late-career outspoken politics. But The Mule has gotten a lot of praise from many more left-leaning critics, who also love Eastwood (this one included). He’s made so many great films both in front of and behind the camera that he will always, always get a second chance. In the mind of a a conservative who believes liberals are always persecuting his team, Eastwood is apparently not a popular director with the critical world anymore … yet liberals will always give Eastwood a chance when his movies aren’t cartoonishly “conservative.”
Engage with the messages he’s still sending. Shitting on his movies about the military is an easy target because the military has been made to stand as a conservative institution by a lot of media on both sides of the aisle. But the behavior we expect from people — how racial language is deployed as humor to hide its edge, how men are expected to treat women, what we expect from men who have families — all of these make up the real meat of cultural hypocrisy.
My grandpa is a good man who treated his family well and worked hard to be there for them, and yet Eastwood is still an authoritative voice to him. And people who disagree with the conservative values touted by jingoistic movies shouldn’t rush to give a pretty basic movie like The Mule a pass because the shitty behavior on display is not rooted in violence.
There’s no reason to pretend Eastwood is a person whose movies present an insightful or particularly thoughtful view of the American experience. They’re enjoyed by audiences who want one thing from him, reassurance that the hypocrisy of their support for men like Trump — or Gingrich or other right-wing swindlers peddling “family values” while fucking the babysitter — is OK and in fact admirable.
Ultimately, The Mule speaks to the values of a dirty old man whose time is running short, who thinks he needs to come clean and be forgiven by the people in his life without ever offering true contrition. Whether you would associate that with quote-unquote “conservative values” is up to you, although having worked at a country club for most of my teenage years, that sounds about right. Earl makes racist remarks regularly and acts like an old doofus to get away with them; never mind the fact that his use of the term “negro” when speaking to a random black couple on the side of the road is something Earl probably should’ve gotten over five decades ago.
I’m surprised this is the movie garnering heaps of praise from a lot of critics who wrote eloquent slam-pieces about American Sniper and 15:17. Earl has his two threesomes; another sequence is pretty much Eastwood letting the camera leer on a woman’s bikini-ed ass for ages(and this after the upskirt stuff in 15:17). His relationship with his (all-female) family boils down to him being crabby until they forgive him either on their deathbed or after the deathbed is vacated. Earl has no sons because in films for his audience, a father with a son has to display traditionally “masculine” judgment and attitudes, but a father with a daughter is allowed to display emotion. (I think about this a lot when I watch movies, now that I’m expecting a son next year.)
It’s no different than other Eastwood films; it’s exactly what you’d expect from the man who yelled at a chair during the Republican National Convention. His audience is precisely those who argue for “conservative values” but whose private hypocrisies betray them. The Mule is just nothing new from him, even though it starts out with a somewhat promising-if-problematic 30 or so minutes when it doesn’t try to engage with the guilt of old age. Once the movie tries to bring itself full circle, it sputters and fails pretty spectacularly due to the inherently selfish nature of Earl’s life and how little credence the movie gives the concerns of the family wronged by him.
The Mule isn’t a film with a lot of marketing weight behind it, and I imagine it will quickly come and go. Audiences attracted to Eastwood’s politics will probably not be disappointed, and people attracted to fond childhood memories of Eastwood will get some laughs, but don’t be fooled: The Mule is modern Eastwood telling a story with overtly conservative politics, which is to say angry, grumpy and inherently hypocritical. Your mileage may vary, but it seems like we’re probably stuck with this kind of work from him for the rest of his life. Don’t let any other hopeful critics tell you differently.