Once the proud pillar of American cinematic masculinity, nowadays Clint Eastwood is the Hollywood embodiment of the “old man yells at cloud” meme (or chair, in his case). At 88-years-old, he’s directed seven movies in the last decade and even had two movies released in the same year twice. But as the world has felt with other once-beloved actors like Mel Gibson or Tom Cruise, it wrestles with the significance of the former Dirty Harry. Is Eastwood still one of the true icons of Hollywood’s golden age or is he a grandpa telling all these liberal youngsters on their phones to get off of his red white and blue lawn?
A similar situation plagues The Mule, Eastwood’s 40th directorial effort and 72nd acting gig. Based on a New York Times article, Eastwood’s latest vehicle is about a frequent operator of vehicles that took him all around America and far away from his family. Aging horticulturist Earl Stone (Eastwood) has his flower business run out by that blasted internet machine and his farm foreclosed on. His ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) and daughter (Alison Eastwood) despise him for bailing on them over the years while his granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga) keeps trying to mend fences. Alone and low on cash, Earl stumbles into driving cocaine cross-country for a Mexican drug cartel led by a chilled-out boss (Andy Garcia). Earl’s antics garner the attention of the DEA and one of its newer recruits (Bradley Cooper).
At a breezy 114 minutes, The Mule is a case of two different tones messily forced together. Despite the trailers portraying it as a tense drama, the first 75 minutes of The Mule could be confused for a comedy with some changes to the cinematography and the music. The script by Nick Schenk (Gran Torino, Narcos) plays up Earl’s racism in the movie for laughs (which my screening audience of mostly older people ate up with glee) while also throwing in some jokes about that blasted internet and the generation that’s always on their phones. It even has Earl use a tube of Bengay to throw off the scent of a drug dog because using a tube of denture adhesive would’ve been too obvious. Wiest’s character says nothing but rushed exposition about Earl’s deadbeat past, not that anyone else is given anything deeper than the obvious descriptions of the film’s events. Seeing Eastwood sing old country tunes while moving bricks of cocaine across state lines and looking like he needs the cartel members to walk him across the street is somewhat refreshing, especially for such a beloved badass as himself. Though there seems to be a touch of ego-stroking on his part during the scene where he’s partying with the cartel and partaking in a threesome with women decades younger than him.
The movie makes a turn to a drama for the remaining minutes when it finally decides to have stakes and put emotional weight on Earl’s shoulders. It’s not a hard turn that makes for tonal whiplash considering the movie’s leisurely pace but there’s still a connecting piece missing that would tie those two halves together into one cohesive narrative. One wishes the first half was stretched into an entire feature so Eastwood could show a softer, more relaxed side of himself. On the other hand, seeing the second half get more meat to its story would’ve been a much-needed reminder of Eastwood’s talent as a dramatic storyteller. The stronger of the two is the second half thanks to the haunting score by Arturo Sandoval and the constant cool of Eastwood’s performance. Wiest’s character is even given more to do as the symbol of Earl’s redemption to his family and Cooper actually has a charming scene with Eastwood to compare the lives of two working men.
That tonal split also impacts the performances in The Mule. In his first on-screen acting role in six years, Eastwood looks more like a confused old man than ever before with moments of genuine charisma and hints of romantic chemistry with Wiest but they’re fleeting. At least he’s not trying to be a super patriot or claim that his generation are the only ones who do the real work this day and age, but Eastwood feels out of place for a majority of the picture. Cooper might be forgiven for his brief appearances in this (he’s been busy) but they are more akin to “appearances” than “performances” as he only has two scenes with Eastwood and stays disconnected with the plot until the final 20 minutes. The Mule’s purest element is Garcia as the elderly swinging coke kingpin shooting buck shots with a golden rifle. With his natural charm and splashes of finesse, he’s worthy of his own spin-off movie.
Unfortunately The Mule doesn’t have the same gravitas as the other farewell film for a beloved aging actor this year: Robert Redford’s The Old Man & the Gun. It doesn’t reach levels of embarrassment that Eastwood’s other 2018 project, The 15:17 to Paris, but The Mule is too leisurely and unfocused to earn Eastwood back any credibility. Anyone would be hard pressed to find the person that tells Eastwood what to do in his life, but perhaps it’s time for someone else to give the Oscar-winner something new to try out. He might think he’s going out like the stern hero he once was but it’s hard to make that image stick when you’re so out of tune.