Directed by Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood’s The Mule is ludicrous. Its predictability wouldn’t normally be a problem were it at least a little fun, but the movie takes itself very seriously. Eastwood plays the central character, a 90 year old Earl Stone, who is at all times the moral center of the movie, which is absurd because he’s a drug trafficker.
We’re led to believe that Stone didn’t know what he had gotten himself into, that the armed gangsters and thousands of dollars in neat bills didn’t clue him into what his illegal cargo may be. There’s a scene in the first half of the movie, featured in the trailers, in which Stone checks the bed of his truck and is surprised to find drugs in there. What did he think it would be?
Stone is a celebrated horticulturist who has always put work in front of family. We first see him in 2005 at an event which deifies him and which he chose to attend over his daughter’s wedding (her second). Stone seems so old and naive, in fact, that it’s safe to wonder if he just simply forgot about his daughter’s wedding. When he wins an award, which everyone seemed to know would happen from the start, he either feigns surprise or experiences it genuinely.
The rest of the film bounces back and forth between seeing Stone as a clueless old man or a conniving, intelligent conman who uses his charms and feigned senility to sleuth around the law.
We are asked to empathize with this man and cheer him on when nothing he does deserves such warm feelings. He is casually racist, but more importantly so is the movie. Every white character is someone of virtue, and the gangsters with whom Earl surrounds himself are caricatures of a cartel member seen in things like Breaking Bad or Narcos. They are gun-toting, aggressive, simple-minded criminals whose only redemption comes when they treat Earl with kindness. The old man being the moral high ground, their ability to accept him is meant to read as an indicator that they have attained a higher level of being.
Earl’s family is a problem too. They, for the most part, loathe him, understandably, but his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) is too young and, apparently, naive to see anything but the best in him. Through her Earl will attempt to redeem himself in his family’s eyes. He will provide the flowers and the open bar at her wedding, then he’ll give her the money to finish school, but when he says he can’t show up to his ex-wife’s bedside as she lays dying, Ginny turns on him like everyone else.
It’s during a climactic drug run, of course, that Earl’s ex-wife, Mary (Dianne Wiest) falls ill, but he will throw caution in the wind and go to her bedside. It’s there that she forgives him for all his misbehavior, and hell so does the rest of the family. They then have time to plan and attend the funeral before the gangsters catch up to Earl and demand to know where he’s been.
Earl is eventually caught, as you expect, but the ending remains a positive one only because his family is firmly on his side. After his arrest I figured there’d be yet another falling out, that they would realize he truly hasn’t changed for the better, but instead at his sentencing there they are, crying their eyes out for their poor old grandfather.
His lawyer will argue that he’s just an old man who was taken advantage of, but then it’s Earl, again the moral center, who puts his foot down and pleads guilty himself. Eastwood has to play the hero, and the hero has to decide what’s right and wrong.
I feel this movie has many of the same problems, subjective of course, as David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun, a much better movie but which fails to hold accountable its protagonist (Robert Redford) for the crimes he has committed. These films celebrate their lawlessness because, they might argue, no one gets hurt. It’s supposed to be amusing what they get away with, but I think both movies ignore both the privilege of their position and the relentless ego and selfishness of their pursuit.
Oh, and Earl Stone is constantly ridiculing the “internet” and the people who use it. It’s never framed as just a cranky old man, which it is, because that old man is the one doing the framing.
The Mule is a ridiculous movie that should be fun but which is made with a degree of narcissism, ego and pessimism. Should Eastwood be believed, Earl Stone is a man of immense virtue, and once he’s gone the world will have lost a guardian angel. In reality, he’s just a selfish old white male who doesn’t agree with the very nature of change.
Up Next: They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), Amadeus (1984), The Two Escobars (2010)