The Mule (2018)

*. I think The Mule is a slightly stranger movie than was first appreciated. Yes, it’s a slow-paced swan song from a very old star (which was actually becoming a familiar subgenre at this time). It’s a movie about a driver for a drug cartel, but without any car chases. Or, for that matter, anyone driving above the speed limit. Earl Stone has never even had a ticket, despite never wearing a seatbelt. People of his generation didn’t wear seatbelts. Did you ever see anyone in Smokey and the Bandit wearing a seatbelt? No you did not.
*. In addition, despite being a movie about violent gangsters I think we only see one person being shot, and even that’s done out of frame. This isn’t Scarface. There’s always the threat of violence, but that’s something different. Real violence explodes without a warning. Threats of violence don’t impress Earl, who is a vet, very much.
*. But while all this is different, I don’t think it’s what makes The Mule strange. Nor is there anything untoward about the story itself: the old man who breaks bad in order to better provide for his family. In doing so he manages to reconnect with his wife, daughter, and granddaugter and at least to some degree make amends. It’s a feel-good message and we’re left thinking that perhaps crime really does pay. Hell, of course it does, and if you’re a good man you can use the money to help others. And if you’re really lucky you may even have the story of your life sympathetically adapated for the big screen, in a film starring Clint Eastwood.

*. Sure Earl runs out of time at the end, but that’s going to happen to all of us. The inevitability and indeed imminence of death is something Earl reacts to with the same look of insult whether it be in the form of his wife dying of cancer or a burly gangster pointing a gun at his head. We may even feel there’s a certain immaturity in Earl’s attitude toward death, with his horticultural pursuits being a sort of escape from human mortality. At one point he seems to recognize as much, but this is only glanced at.
*. So its message and pacing are not all that surprising. Nor is the political point about how Earl’s success is at least partially grounded in his invisibility to police profiling. Old white guys aren’t a criminal type, which is something that plays to Earl’s advantage. Even Bradley Cooper refers to Earl as one of “you guys,” meaning “you old people,” which is a politically incorrect faux pas he has to backtrack from but which reveals a lot. Of course Earl himself is genially incorrect in his own way of addressing people, but he has no bad intentions and that seems to count for something.
*. Instead, what strikes me as strange here is how basically reasonable and decent the gangsters are. It’s significant that when Earl suggests to Julio that he give up the gangster life, Julio responds that they are his family. Earl argues that they don’t really care about Julio, but he’s wrong. In fact, for all their brutality the cartel are a sort of family, and show themselves to be considerate and understanding to Earl. They even show real sympathy for him after his wife dies. Sure they rough him up, but this is a business and Earl has been endangering all of them by going off on his own. Meanwhile, don’t expect any scenes hinting at the personal or social damage caused by the drug business. This isn’t Traffic, which should be a good thing but instead made me feel like something was being airbrushed.
*. I don’t know how much of this was intentional and how much was part of Eastwood just wanting to soften the tone of the proceedings. Whatever the reason, The Mule is a very mellow trip. This makes it comfortable enough, but I don’t see where it leaves it with much to say. What’s interesting about it is downplayed so that the more conventional elements can be indulged. I guess after all this time Eastwood figured he knew what audiences wanted, and on that count I’m not going to say he was wrong.

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