The Mule – movie review

Not to be confused with the 2014 Australian comedy of the same name, The Mule is the latest from prolific filmmaker Clint Eastwood. The Mule tells the semi-fictional account of a 90-year old man who ran drugs for a powerful Mexican cartel. The film was inspired by the New York Times article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year Old Drug Mule”, by journalist Sam Dolnick. The story was adapted and shaped by screenwriter Nick Schenk, who previously wrote Eastwood’s superb Gran Torino.

In only his third acting role in the past decade, Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a former Korean War veteran and an award winning horticulturist from Illinois who has fallen on hard times. His property has been foreclosed. Due to the demands of his business Stone has also become estranged from his family – wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and daughter Iris (played by Eastwood’s real life daughter Alison, which brings an authentic tension to the prickly chemistry between the two) and his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). A dispute at his grand daughter’s wedding leads Earl to be approached by a stranger and offered a job driving. Earl has never had so much as a parking ticket in his life, and his clean record makes him perfect for his role.

He drives to a small garage run by a group of Mexicans and is given instructions on how to deliver a package and get paid. After a couple of successful and smooth runs driving mysterious goods up and down America’s interstate highway system Earl opens one of the bags and discovers that he is running cocaine. He continues using the money to try and make things better for his family and some former army buddies. But running drugs for a cartel is fraught with the danger of arrest from the DEA as well as sudden violence and even betrayal. Some of the Mexicans Earl deal with are pleasant enough, like Andy Garcia’s genial drugs kingpin Laton, who enjoys a lavish life style and even sports gold plated rifles when skeet shooting; but some are quite ruthless and downright scary.

On Earl’s trail are a couple of DEA agents from Chicago – Bates (Bradley Cooper), a new agent keen to make his bones with a spectacular bust, and his wise-cracking partner (Michael Pena).

At 88 Eastwood still churns out one film a year and is a pretty reliable filmmaker. His previous film The 15:17 to Paris was a little more experimental in approach than we usually expect from the prolific filmmaker, but The Mule is a return to a more traditional narrative. His direction is typically deft and assured and unhurried. There is a lack of urgency and edge to the material though and it doesn’t really explore the morality of drug smuggling. And the on screen violence here is kept to a minimum.

This is part road movie, part redemption tale, with some gorgeous cinematography of rural America from Canadian cinematographer Yves Belanger (Brooklyn). A sub-plot centring around Earl reconnecting with Mary when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer does tend to slow the momentum down and comes across as a tad manipulative, but it gives the film its emotional heft.

The character of Earl is a quintessential Eastwood character – a quiet loner, taciturn straight talker with a dry sense of humour who can say some politically incorrect things and largely get away with it. And he still has plenty of charm and charisma and a strong screen presence. The role carries plenty of baggage that fits an actor of his age. He shuffles a little more now but he still has that gruff charm and quiet snarl and craggy weathered face. As usual Eastwood has assembled a solid cast to bring the characters to life. Cooper and Pena bring some humour to the material with their double act. A scene in which Earl and Bates meet over coffee may remind some of a scene from Heat. Laurence Fishburne has a small role as the boss of the Chicago DEA, but his one dimensional character leaves little impression on the material. Wiest is fine as Mary, and Alison Eastwood brings some real emotion to her role as Earl’s estranged daughter who has never quite got over the emotional hurt he carelessly inflicted.

It has also been widely speculated that this is possibly his last screen appearance in front of the camera after a career spanning some fifty years (although we also heard that a decade ago when he starred in Gran Torino). If it is his last screen role it is a fine note on which to leave. The Mule is a somewhat reflective and melancholy film, tinged with a similar tone to Robert Redford’s screen swan song with the recent The Old Man and the Gun.

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, Alison Eastwood
Release Date: 24 January 2019
Rating: M

Greg King

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