Peaceful but prosaic meditation on the value of life.
Could this be a new trend in filmmaking; pensioners partaking in criminal activities? We had both King of Thieves and the near-perfect The Old Man & The Gun last year; now we have The Mule, which moves away from robberies into drug trafficking. But this true story, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, establishes the paediatric suspense with ease but fails to capture a steady tone, veering between outrageous, melodramatic and dull in its bloated runtime.
Based on Sam Dolnick’s New York Times article, “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule”, the film follows Earl Stone (Eastwood), a 90-year-old former horticulturist who after facing financial ruin and an increasingly estranged relationship with his wife (Dianne Wiest) and kids, becomes an insanely successful drug courier for the cartel. Meanwhile, the DEA is cracking down on narcotics deliveries to Chicago, with fresh agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) leading the charge.
Penning the screenplay is Nick Schenk, who last collaborated with Eastwood in 2008’s fantastic Gran Torino. While that script balanced melancholy with mesmerising badassery, his work on The Mule is the film’s greatest downfall. Regularly, exposition is dropped on the audience about Earl’s immoral past, alerting us all to his past negligence and self-serving gaffes even though that’s made abundantly clear from the grumpy faces evoked from any sign of his face. The family drama progresses and evolves with one too many contrivances, heading towards a fairly unmoving moment that’s only saved by some playful acting from Eastwood (“I’m a high-end gigolo”).
This is very much a film where the exciting story (on paper) isn’t the focus at all; it’s Eastwood. He plays a mildly grumpy nonagenarian, a non-PC curmudgeon type that the actor/director has practically mastered as an art form. While Gran Torino saw that evolve into something more explicit and violent, here he’s a soft counter to Redford’s Old Man. He knows how to stop and smell his roses, taking opportunities during his road trips to stop at various attractions, even on one occasion treating his cartel supervisors to “best pulled pork sandwich in the world”. He plays it with a honed-in insouciant glee, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to grin as he drives, drives and drives, once singing ‘Ain’t That A Kick In The Head’. But Eastwood, as a veteran thespian, threads the repose with a prevalent guilt that thankfully, has somewhat of a richly satisfying denouement.
But where The Old Man & The Gun succeeded immensely, The Mule falls behind, simply by trying to do too much. As noted, fallout at home is more of a distraction. But in trying to balance the attention-grabbing point of the story with the thriller aspects, both Eastwood and Schenk botch the tone. On Cooper’s copper side, the chase readily moves along and serves as a nice detour in the storytelling, but is deprived of more urgent gravity despite a nicely subtle turn from its charismatic performer. There is one rather endearing moment between the two males (who previously worked together on American Sniper), a conversation that forms an unspoken, gentlemanly bond. One spark of true heart, something the film could do with more of.
Then there’s the party of the cartel. Their scenes (in which the members are simply good or bad, no in-between) are a product of banality. Andy Garcia has a permanent post-tequila grumble as the boss, cheekily grinning the whole way but coming off very one-note. The strangest moment of the film comes from a party at his exorbitant crib, where he lets Earl of his lead into the wild of a pool party; the camera leers uncomfortably longingly over women’s bikini-clad butts, before shoving the OAP into a bedroom for a (second) threesome. One wouldn’t be surprised if they cite Breaking Bad as a reference point in crafting the leadership dynamics. Less of an analysis of how the trade works, more of a portrait of how a person could quite easily be sucked into this line of work.
Earl, as is the stereotype, isn’t necessarily racist (that would imply he’s intentionally outrageous) – but his repartee is thoughtless. There’s something troubling about the way film invites you in to laugh at his ignorance without much atonement. In one instance, a couple gently condemn his remarks, to which he responds cheerily. You may giggle, but marks the attempts at humour leave aren’t necessarily pleasant.
Yet, there’s something enjoyably swansongish about his carefree driving. Moments of razor-sharp close calls compliment the wistful tone, which is when the film captures your imagination the most. Regular collaborating composer Arturo Sandoval returns with the swooning mood of a classic time at the movies, as well as affecting, adept camerawork from Yves Bélanger. The story may be watered down and suffer some problematic missteps, but with a game-as-ever legend at the heart of the tale, we should just be glad he’s still as spirited.
The Mule has more than a few bumps along the way, but there’s worse roads to take a Sunday drive down.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm