Clint Eastwood is a machine. The man as a director has made 40 films in the last 47 years, with two alone coming out this year. In the first half of the year we got the bland 15:17 to Paris which recreated the foiling of a 2015 terror attack using the real heroes as actors. Eastwood’s second film comes at the tail-end of the year, with his first appearance as an actor in six years.
The Mule is the true story of a 90-year old horticulturist named Earl (Clint Eastwood) who in 2017 became a drug mule for the Sinaloan cartel. The cartel relied on Earl so much that they had him transporting up to 300 kilos of cocaine at a time. The story follows Earl as he falls down the drug rabbit hole and the parallel FBI investigation.
The problem with having produced so much good content over the years, is that Eastwood has set the bar high. So when he stumbles on small aspects like sloppy editing when setting up characters, or in the needless objectification of women (coming from the man who made Million Dollar Baby), it feels very frustrating. The Mule’s story struggles to pick up its pace in the opening third, as the film attempts to provide an emotional base for the tensions set ahead. Eastwood spends too little time on this, and as a result it feels like an empty portion of the film.
Once we muddle through this opening act and have our characters and their narratives properly introduced, we start getting into a steady and fun rhythm. It is here that Eastwood’s stellar cast (Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña, Diane Wiest) begins to shine in small but impactful roles. The film, however, is mostly focused on Earl, and thus a lot of weight went into having to have a strong performance from Eastwood. Having played the anti-hero in so many other films, audiences would have come The Mule with a certain expectation. However, the veteran actor doesn’t bring the gruff demeanor we usually associate with him, rather an innocent charm that takes us all by surprise. It’s a performance that will largely be ignored by most movie goers (and award shows), but the complexities and likeability that Eastwood brings to Earl are nothing short of miraculous, grounding the film and providing the proper motivation to keep viewers hooked.
Being based on a true story of a redundant job, the film itself does struggle sometimes to map out some sense of progression. Eastwood does well to build up the stakes as Earl becomes more embroiled in the cartel’s plans. However, the way that the finale was handled was very anti-climactic. Instead of ending with a “bang!” we slide into the credits with a bit of a whimper. You can’t change how the past happened for these real characters, but for cinematic purposes we were lead to believe there would be a big standoff or shootout; the result is not enough of a payoff for the escalation that was provided.
There are moments in veteran directors’ films that indicate their capabilities of creating “movie magic.” One of such is seen in The Mule in what will be the most surprising and best scene of the film. In the scene, Earl is driving his truck being monitored and followed by two cartel thugs. Unknown to Earl is that the thugs have bugged his truck and are listening in on him, however, instead of hearing Earl conspire against them, they simply hear him sing along to the radio. Slowly the two thugs begin to sing along too in a moment of pure humanity that can only be captured by most expert artists. It’s these moments that make the entire audience in a theater smile.
In the end, The Mule is a fun flick from Eastwood that nevertheless has it’s glaring flaws. A lack of proper focus on character and a rather sloppy set up only make this entertaining ride a little bumpy.