Thursday, 31 January 2019

Review: The Mule

The Mule (Spoilers)
Cert: 15 / 116 mins / Dir. Clint Eastwood / Trailer

I've written before about the position many a movie-viewer unwittingly finds themselves in these days, with the awkwardness of separating the art from the artist. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes not so much. But the feat is perhaps at its most tricky when the presentation we see on screen appears to run a little too closely to preconceptions the audience already hold regarding its stars and creators.

Long story short, that business with the empty chair had already put Clint Eastwood on my watch-list. The flag-waving pompousness of entirely missing the point of a tragic story underlined his name in red. The Mule felt like it was going to be hard work.


Inspired by a true story (although even the film itself doesn't claim any level of documentary-type insight), Clint produces, directs and stars as 90yr old Earl Stone, a keen gardener who turned his hobby into a flourishing business, the attention of which took its toll on his family relationships. Estranged from his wife, and with his flower-farm in liquidation, Earl chances into a job which plays to another of his strengths: driving. With years of no incidents or licence points, he's just the kind of under-the-radar courier that's sought after by the Mexican drug cartels looking to move their product around the country*1. Earl quickly becomes adept at the job, but how technically 'good' can anyone be at something which is principally 'bad'? Where do the lines of professional pride and personal ethics cross, and is it possible to see that juncture before it's passed? How much slack are we supposed to cut someone who's providing for their family while being part of the machine which destroys other peoples'?

Don't worry, that's not explored. Any of it. What begins as a treatise of the decline of blue-collar America quickly descends into a mawkish and morally myopic "no choice, guv'nor" small-c conservative fantasy of free-marketeering, where disregard of the law and the cumulative misery of others is apparently fine if you're an old white dude who served in the army 70 years ago. The film goes into intricate detail as to how Earl drifts into his new employment, and gets as close to the why as it can without flat-out celebrating him for it. But is the character narratively condemned for his actions? The tone of this review so far probably answers that.


For all Earl's initial reticence at the job and not thinking for a second that a bunch of Mexicans in an urban garage armed with machine guns might just be getting him to transport *gasp* actual drugs, and that bit where he sees the drugs and decides to keep doing the job anyway, he's unapologetically upfront about it all. Once apprehended by the authorities, Earl freely admits to what he was doing and accepts his prison sentence with equal openness. But is there even a nanosecond of actual contrition for his crimes? Is there fuck.

Our hero's just happy to be out of the house and not be being shouted at by his family. Andy Garcia's slimy drug-baron ensures Earl is paid with his requisite amount of cash, and also throws in a couple of bikini-clad hotties to keep him busy until the small hours to boot. The casual misogyny in The Mule is, while intermittent, staggering. And as much as it may be in keeping for the characters it portrays, at no point does the screenplay feel the need to cast any judgement on those perpetrating it. I think the joke here is meant to be the curmudgeonly protagonist who doesn't quite understand how the modern world works. But after about 30 minutes, it begins to appear that this applies to the Eastwood on the other side of the camera as well.


As judgemental as I am, I can envision the script meeting where Clint (in The Big Chair) insists "no, no Earl doesn't have to say he's sorry because he's not and that's fine because that's his character and don't forget this is a true story, and if you belittle or emasculate him then you're insulting everyone who fought for America in all the wars. And yes he gets to be a bit racist, but it's not like he's punching the black people so that's okay. Also Earl definitely needs to have a threesome with two chicks in the party scene because how else will we know he's straight and with fully-working plumbing? I mean apart from his family. And yes, the chicks have to kiss Earl on-camera before the door closes slowly. Yes, both of them… did you not hear the bit I just said about the war, Terry? PUT IT IN."

Maybe I'm just an old-fashioned sort who wants a protagonist they can like. Or if not like, at least gleefully will to self-destruction. And sure, those who lean to the right are entitled to their movie-heroes every bit as much as those on the other side of the fence, but narcotic distribution is something they traditionally get quite beetroot about, so it seems odd that the profession doesn't come in for at least some mild tutting here, and you really have to wonder where the moral baseline is. Can I really believe that the producer, director and star of this film is making it as a way to highlight the absolute hypocrisy of the main character?
As you've no doubt gathered by now, no. No, I can't.


But even without my yoghurt-knitting politics coming between me and the screen, The Mule is just not that good a film. Focusing on nobody except the character who apparently cares about no one but himself, it has no message or wisdom to impart, which given the current socio-political climate seems like a shrugging of responsibility. But nor is it a rip-roaring ride of entertainment as we watch a light burn twice as brightly for half as long. No, an old man breaks the law repeatedly out of misguided boredom, he gets caught, he goes to prison. That's it. That's not a story, just a two-hour sequence of events.

Oh, and why would the cartels keep giving Earl a brand new smartphone for each trip if they're not going to use its inbuilt technology to track their multi-million dollar shipment, so that when the old man goes AWOL for a week they have literally no idea where he could be even though he was recruited to their business at his ex-wife's house so maybe start fucking looking there, especially since that's where he fucking is?

Clint, did you write this?

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
It's probably a bit Gran Torino (same screenwriter) but with no moral compass.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
Not particularly.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
If you like.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Absolutely not.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Absolutely yes.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Bradley Cooper's in this and he was Rocket in Guardians Of The Galaxy along with Peter 'Maul' Serafinowicz, Benicio 'DJ' Del Toro, Spencer 'Vader' Wilding and Ralph 'Garmuth' Ineson.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Of course the initial thing that attracts the cartel rep's attention is that Earl is an old man steadily driving an old beat up truck. So what's the first thing he does the minute he gets paid after his first run? Yeah, he buys a gleaming new pickup which looks conspicuous-as-fuck no matter who's driving it. Game-face Earl, game-face[ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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