Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Movie Review: The Mule

The Mule **** / *****
Directed by: Clint Eastwood.
Written by: Nick Schenk based on the article by Sam Dolnick.
Starring: Clint Eastwood (Earl Stone), Bradley Cooper (Colin Bates), Taissa Farmiga (Ginny), Alison Eastwood (Iris), Michael Peña (DEA Agent), Andy Garcia (Laton), Laurence Fishburne (DEA Special Agent), Dianne Wiest (Mary), Clifton Collins Jr. (Cartel Member), Manny Montana (Axl), Jill Flint (Pam), Robert LaSardo (Emilio), Noel Gugliemi (Bald Rob), Loren Dean (DEA Agent Brown), Ignacio Serricchio (Julio), Katie Gill (Sarah), Daniel Moncada (Eduardo), Victor Rasuk (Rico).
Ten years ago, Gran Torino was supposed to be the then 78-year old Clint Eastwood’s acting swansong – and it was a fitting one, where the veteran actor played a Korean war veteran, who has to confront his own violent past, and his own racism – and like a number of Eastwood films before, make way for the younger generation as his character had become a man who has outlived his time. Four years later, Eastwood acted in Trouble with the Curve (he didn’t direct that one) – and for a while, that looked to be his final onscreen working – far less fitting, as while that film is kind of fun and charming, it’s also largely forgettable, and has the exact opposite message – where Eastwood’s baseball scout can still tell better than any phony math who can play baseball, and who can’t. I’m glad then that Eastwood decided to star in this one last film – The Mule – which shows that the old guy still has it, and is a fitting send off for his onscreen career – that is if the now 88-year-old doesn’t have something else up his sleeve for 2028.
The film itself is a bit of an odd duck. It is loosely based on a true story, that found a 90-year-old man become the go to drug mule for a Mexican Cartel – hauling hundreds of kilos from Texas to Chicago in the back of his pickup. The money is good – and for Earl that is enough. He was once one of the more celebrated members of the Day Lily Community – we see him in an early scene in 2005 winning member of the year at a convention (that he skipped his daughter’s wedding to attend) – but also in that scene recognize what will be his downfall there – his failure to embrace the internet. 12 years later, his farm is foreclosed on, and he has no money and nowhere to go. That daughter, Iris (Allison Eastwood – Clint’s daughter) won’t speak to him, and neither will his ex-wife, Mary (Dianne Wiest). His granddaughter, Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) still loves Grandpa Earl – and is now getting married herself – and Earl has promised to pay for the open bar. So when the opportunity to make thousands of dollars for driving comes up, Earl takes it – thinking it will be a one-time thing. It won’t be.
When you hear that Clint Eastwood has made a film about Mexican drug cartels, you are probably thinking you’re in for an exciting action movie – maybe a film with mounting tension. The Mule is decidedly not that. Earl has a blast on the road – through Middle America – and he’s able to win over just about everyone. The cartel members who load up his truck at first glare at him – trying to intimidate him, but soon they’re all laughing and joking together. He has a couple of strange run-ins along the way that show his age – first with an all-female motorcycle group – “Dykes on Bikes” and then with an African American family with a flat tire – in both cases Earl uses decidedly non-PC language – and gets politely, if firmly, rebuffed. He smiles and laughs it off. He is casually racist – not as much as his Gran Torino character, but they’re certainly from the same generation – but he means no one any harm.
The Mule isn’t quite a comedy, and it isn’t quite a drama, and it isn’t quite a thriller, so honestly, I’m not quite sure what it is. Whatever it is, it works – gliding mostly on Eastwood’s charms in front of the camera, and his minimalist approach to directing behind it. You cannot say this is a vanity free performance by Eastwood – he has two three ways in the film, so yes, there is some ego stroking going on here – but even in one of those sequences, Eastwood undercuts that somewhat by showing us his rail thin, seemingly frail body. Eastwood isn’t afraid to look old here – and it’s a treat to see him play that old, and then in other scenes, overplay how old he is to distract various cops into thinking he’s a doddering old fool. That’s what makes him such a good drug mule – because who would think they would entrust that much money to this guy?
There is some political undercurrent here as well. Eastwood paints a portrait of modern day America where it doesn’t matter if you’re a DEA agent, a Cartel member or anyone else – the big guy will always have his foot on the neck of the little guy, keeping him down, demanding more from him. But mainly, this is a portrait of a man who is coming near the end of his life, and looks back at everything he has done, and wonders if he mucked it all up. The fact that film is released around the time of Sondra Locke’s death is a strange coincidence – the end of that chapter in Eastwood’s life is perhaps the ugliest side of Eastwood’s own personal life, which he has always tried to keep private.
The Mule doesn’t hit the heights of Eastwood’s best work – this is no Outlaw Josey Wales or Unforgiven – but it’s a treat to see Eastwood onscreen again, and carrying this strange little movie.

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