In 'The Mule,' Clint Eastwood is an old dog sticking to old tricks

by Mia Nelson | 1/17/19 2:30am

For a movie about drugs and cartels that was inspired by a New York Times article by Nick Schenk, Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule,” is surprisingly dull, revealing nothing new with surface-level characters far below the capability of their actors.. Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a down-on-his luck former daylily horticulturist who becomes a drug runner, or mule, for a cartel in Illinois. Bradley Cooper plays Colin Bates, the FBI agent tasked with tracking the massive shipments of drugs into Chicago. Taissa Farminga plays Stone’s granddaughter, Ginny. Farminga’s portrayal is sophomoric, and her emotional scenes are unconvincing. When she calls Stone to tell him that his ex-wife is dying, Farmings uses acting class-techniques to touch her face and exasperatedly say, “I can’t believe this.” 

Viewers will have a difficult time believing anything on screen, not because the story is outlandish, but because all the actors save Eastwood appear to be phoning in their performances. Cooper is predictable, and for someone so consistently nuanced in his portrayals, completely forgettable. Stone is the only character with depth, and even his depth is a caricature: the old man who dances with prostitutes, the old man who regrets leaving his wife and the old man who just wants to be there for his granddaughter. Even below the surface, clichés run rampant. 

But I don’t blame the actors; it is difficult to lend vivacity to a tired script. The film falls into unforgiveable and boring caricatures: an effeminate cartel employee, an old man who can’t text, a stoic and determined FBI agent, stereotyped cartel employees, a hysterical ex-wife and a scene where police brutality is supposed to be viewed as comical when a nervous Hispanic man is pulled over. Stone at one point, uses a racial slur to address a black family he pulls over to help change their tire. It is clear Eastwood is comfortable with eschewing political correctness, but should we be comfortable letting him do so? There are moments where his exaggerations might be intended to be commentary on how the elderly are seen as weak, untoward and harmless. 

Stone is not a happy-go-lucky grandpa delivering pecans to his niece, he is in fact moving millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine. But the commentary stops right at Stone’s feet; other characters who suffer from prejudiced depictions are left unexplained. The audience is genuinely supposed to laugh when the male cartel employee is shaken down at a nail salon and told he would never survive in prison with his manicure. 

Stone’s drug runs are the crux of the movie, which is why it is such a shame that they are so boring. He sings ragtime songs in the car and frustrates his handlers by stopping at drive-through restaurants and farmers’ markets before delivering the drugs. There is a moment, however, when my boredom turned to curiosity. Was this Eastwood attempting to lull the audience into a state where it seems perfectly normal, uninteresting even, for an old man to partake in risky and illicit behavior simply to pay for his granddaughter’s wedding? 

If that’s the case, I watched the film as it was intended: a purposefully dull look at how far a man would go for the forgiveness of his family. The dullness is to show how ordinary it is to go to drastic measures for intangible desires. 

Stone’s ex-wife becomes ill in the middle of a drug run. Stone finally makes the correct decision and puts his family in front of work. The most beautiful part of the film by far was that Eastwood avoided grandiose gestures as Stone sits in his ex-wife’s dingy, regular room. She dies ingloriously, and Stone ingloriously says goodbye. This film, in that moment, is about how regular people suffer. 

Earlier, while at a party in a compound in Mexico, Stone tells his handler that he wants to go to his room and be alone, since that is the only place he is still somebody. That is more than an old man speaking an old truth: it is Eastwood telling viewers that we must be reminded that our sadness and hurt and loneliness is universal. There is something shimmering and important about beating a dead horse, when the dead horse is telling us that we are not alone in our heads. 

In the end, Stone pleads guilty to drug trafficking and the murders of two cartel employees who stopped him on the way back from his ex-wife’s funeral. Stone says to his daughter at the end of his court hearing that we can buy everything, but we cannot buy time. It is yet another platitude intended to ensure that viewers get the message that family should take precedence over work — but that doesn’t make it less true. 

Stone is seen in the prison yard cultivating a garden of daylilies, smiling in his jumpsuit. It is an obvious symbol: free from the confines of the metaphorical, all-too American prison of suburban expectation, Stone is finally able to be happy. 

But what of our collective imprisonment? Eastwood is telling us that we all lead basically the same lives — we are ordinary, hard-working, occasionally down on our luck. We have hurt people, we have been hurt. We forgive, we plant flowers, we stop for pulled pork sandwiches. We do impossible, brave things. We too live a life of listlessness punctuated by vulgarity and violence. And we all just want to hear what Stone’s wife wanted to hear in the end: I loved you yesterday and I love you today, but not nearly as much as I will love you tomorrow. 

“The Mule” is a simple movie with no new tricks or revelations. It is telling the same story we have been told about white middle America over and over again: a scrappy guy is reluctantly goaded into trouble for the good of his family. And what is truly interesting about the film is that Eastwood refuses to give viewers anything new to glean. He is an old dog who is sticking to old tricks. But we lose nothing in being reminded that we will miss all of life’s grandest joys if we do not have the courage to stay and live our ordinary lives with extraordinary care. Stop and plant the daylilies, Eastwood is saying. They only bloom for so long.