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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

The Mule movie review: the old man and the drugs

The Mule red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Welcome to Peak Apologetics for the Bullshit of White Men, replete with many appalling messages about their endless entitlement to redemption and forgiveness. And as a bonus, it’s racist and sexist.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): no fan of director or star Clint Eastwood of late
I have read the source material (and I am indifferent about it)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Welcome to Peak Apologetics for the Bullshit of White Men. Clint Eastwood has perhaps outdone himself with The Mule, which expects us to be charmed by a miserable old coot (Eastwood, as director: The 15:17 to Paris, Sully) who falls into a life of crime under the spell of an utter naïveté that is impossible to accept. It is also presumed that we will be sympathetic to his redemption in the eyes of the ex-wife and adult daughter to whom he has been an absolute asshole his entire life. “I think you’re just a late bloomer,” his daughter (Alison Eastwood [Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Absolute Power], the star and director’s actual daughter) says reassuringly, when she finally relents and forgives him for being a horrible person. This man is 90 fucking years old. Do men ever have to grow up? The Mule would like you to consider that no, a man does not ever have to grow up, and will still get everything he wants out of life. Including, eventually, the affection of the women he has treated like shit. His ex (poor, poor Dianne Wiest: Sisters, The Odd Life of Timothy Green) never really stopped loving him, doncha know. Aww. *puke*

The Mule Alison Eastwood Clint Eastwood

“Honey, everyone knows that male adolescence lasts until you can’t tell difference between dementia and being too immature to give a shit.”

Clint Eastwood is Earl Stone, who ran a successful day-lily — that’s right, I said “day lily” — business until the Internet ruined it. Did Earl Stone even attempt to adapt his flower business to the Internet? Signs point to no. So he has NO CHOICE but to go blind and foolish into an offer to drive — just drive — some stuff — who could possibly know what sort of stuff — from down near the Mexican border back up to Chicago. (Earl lives in Peoria, Illinois. In a little white house with an American flag waving in slo-mo from the porch. Which has been foreclosed on. The bastards. But just you try being a black man running drugs. Will you be permitted to plead economic hardship for your felonies? Will anyone feel sorry for you if you do? Of course not.)

The damn machine guns wielded by the guys Earl collects The Stuff from apparently do not faze him. It’s only after his first few trips — for which he has been paid with fat wads of cash in manila envelopes — that he thinks to look in the bags the guys-with-machine-guns have put in his truck… and he’s gobsmacked to discover bricks of, I dunno? Cocaine? Heroin? Clearly, Earl recognizes, as anyone who isn’t Forrest Gump would, these white bricks as some sort of illegal drug. If he’s savvy enough for that, he’s savvy enough to have known what he has gotten himself into from the beginning. Fuck The Mule for thinking we will be onboard with the mule not realizing that he is a mule, or have any pity whatsoever for Earl.

The Mule

Sure, all legit jobs pay in wads of cash in a manila envelope left in the glove box by your mysterious handler…

Nick Schenk’s script for The Mule is a lot more generous than the real-life tale this is based on, Sam Dolnick’s New York Times Magazine article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year Old Drug Mule.” (Schenck also wrote Eastwood’s Gran Torino, or as I like to call it, Hey You Kids Get Off My Lawn: The Motion Picture.) Beyond the awful optics of Earl’s absolution, this movie appears to offer the appalling message that if the ruthless drug cartels of Central America were just more laid back, like Earl is, they’d never get caught. Cuz, you see, it’s Earl’s old-fogey refusal to follow cartel rules about routes and schedules on his drug-transporting road trips that make him unpredictable, and hence unsurveillable by the DEA. (I think The Mule intends for us to be amused by how Earl accidentally confounds law enforcement. Blech.) Bonus negative points for the scene in which Earl encounters unwitting DEA agent Colin Bates (poor, poor Bradley Cooper: A Star Is Born, Avengers: Infinity War) in a roadside diner — Bates unaware that he is speaking to the unseen trafficker whom he has been chasing — and Earl offers sad, sage advice to the younger man about how he should take it easy and spend more time with his family and not miss wedding anniversaries and kiddie birthdays merely because of his job. Sure, the DE-fucking-A should be less on-call, right?

I mean, of course, there are ENTIRE OTHER ISSUES about the legalization of currently outlawed drugs that we could be talking about. (Someday the absurdity of the prohibition of mind-altering powders will be seen with the same disdain as the Prohibition the US once had for alcohol. Then maybe those overworked DEA agents can take must-needed vacations.) But The Mule doesn’t broach such matters; it doesn’t seem to recognize that any debate even exists. It just wants us to feel bad, for some inscrutable reason, for Earl and how he was, I dunno, taken advantage of by a cartel or something. C’mon, the movie seems to say, Earl is just this sweet old dude, if a little out-of-date; yes, he calls black people “negroes” to their faces, but he does it in a nice way. He’s simply doing what anyone would do — or at least what any entitled white man who moves through the world like he owns it, and fuck everyone else. Like when he accepts two scantily clad women as party favors at a cartel schmoozer and has a threesome with them, because they’re honestly SO into him.

The Mule Clint Eastwood

If they let you know how nice federal prison is — you get your own flower garden! — everyone would want in…

And Eastwood is doing what any white-male Hollywood-power-player film director would do when he gets the camera in the asses of those women, over and over and over again. I actually moaned “Gross” out loud right there in the screening room: this may be the worst example of this stomach-turning cliché ever, partly for how drawn out it is. But Eastwood finds a repulsive new low in the scene in which Cooper’s Bates and his DEA partner (Michael Peña [12 Strong, CHiPs], wasted here but charming, if briefly so, as ever), in the search for the mule, do a traffic stop of a thoroughly terrified (and, of course, completely innocent) Hispanic man. As this temporary “suspect” practically pees himself in genuine and justifiable fear, he delivers an infodump monologue to the agents — and to the audience — about how “these are the most dangerous five minutes of my life” because the odds of him, as a nonwhite man, being shot and killed by cops in this situation are obscenely high. It appears to be an attempt by the film to show that it is woke about its entire conceit, that it recognizes our culture’s hypocrisy in our preconceptions about who might be a criminal and who gets unwarranted presumptions of innocence. But not only is the entire scene so stilted and implausible that it’s cringe-inducing, the whole thing seems to be played for laughs, from the bemusement of the DEA agents — as if they couldn’t possibly have any idea what their detainee is talking about — to the “suspect”’s overplayed supplication, as if he is being unreasonable and maybe even unnecessarily defensive.

Anyway, whatever wokeness The Mule might think it’s offering is endlessly being undercut by its portrait of Earl as a gentle curmudgeon, a regretful “late bloomer,” and a man who just wants to get back to his flowers. Did you know that inmates in federal prison get to do gardening? Who knew life in the slammer was so pleasant? Only for old white men, I’m guessing.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.



red light 0 stars

The Mule (2018) | directed by Clint Eastwood
US/Can release: Dec 14 2018
UK/Ire release: Jan 25 2019

MPAA: rated R for language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, sexualised nudity)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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