Reviewed by Michael Powell
Family. It is the focus of the starring roles of Clint Eastwood in his post-Mystic River career resurgence. Whether he is directing himself (Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino) or being directed by others (Robert Lorenz’s Trouble with the Curve), the stories that seem to have appealed most to Eastwood the actor in the last decade and a half are those about family. Particularly those stories about estrangement from family. The Mule continues this theme.
When we meet Earl Stone (Eastwood) in the film’s opening sequence set in 2005, he is a charismatic and popular horticulturist who travels the country as a grower of award-winning daylilies. Stone is in his element at a flower convention – charming the other attendees, receiving an award, and decrying impersonal internet sales. Intercut with this, we see that Earl is missing his daughter Iris’s (Alison Eastwood) wedding to attend the convention. It’s clear that this isn’t the first big event Earl has missed. The film quickly jumps to 2017. The internet sales boom has driven Earl’s farm into foreclosure, and his family, apart from his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga), will have little to do with him. With the remains of his life packed into a beat-up old truck, Earl is approached by a guest at Ginny’s bridal shower. The man says he knows somebody that will pay well for a cautious driver who knows his way around the back roads of the United States. With nothing left to lose, Earl takes the job, which is running drugs from Texas to Chicago. Earl is a big success for the cartel and its head boss Laton (Andy Garcia). With larger jobs and the accompanying larger payouts, we see Earl trying to work his way back into his family’s good graces, spending both money and time. On the trail of this mysterious new mule are DEA agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Pena).
Filmically, The Mule is a strange beast. Eastwood’s direction, in his usual style, is no-frills. He tells his stories efficiently, and it works for this film. However, long time viewers of Eastwood’s films are likely to notice a visual change. For the first time since 2002’s Blood Work, Eastwood is working with a new cinematographer. In place of Tom Stern’s work, which plays so beautifully with darkness and shadow (Million Dollar Baby), Yves Bellinger is the D.P. here. Bellinger does a fantastic job shooting the film, particularly with the American countryside during Earl’s drives. The change works for the film.
What doesn’t work quite as well is the screenplay. The screenwriter is Nick Schenk, and The Mule has some of the same problems with clunky writing that he and Eastwood’s previous collaboration, Gran Torino, had. It’s a script with a split personality. At times the writing works very well. Eastwood’s scenes with Dianne Wiest, who plays Earl’s ex-wife Mary, and with daughter Iris are uniformly strong, with some genuinely touching moments. The movie can also be very funny, which is something Eastwood does well, and doesn’t get to do often enough. A highlight is Earl using some of his ill-gotten gains to save his local VFW (glossed over a bit in the film is the fact that Earl is a Korean War veteran). Also fun are his interactions with his handler Julio (Ignacio Serricchio), who starts off harsh towards Earl but grows to like him as much as their relationship allows. Where the script falls down a bit is in setting up stakes for Earl’s character. While not a great family man, Earl seems early on to be a primarily honest, hard-working man. But with the exception of a scene where he opens a duffle bag and seems shocked by the amount of drugs within, there is no real struggle seen here. Did he not know initially what he was doing on these drives? It’s a question the film should have answered more definitively. And there is a scene late in the film involving a police stop that is absolutely terrible. The dialogue is so on-the-nose and unnecessary, I can’t believe that it stayed in a finished film.
On a performance level, the film rests primarily on Eastwood’s shoulders, and he handles the task with great aplomb. We get to see Earl by turns as vulnerable, joyous, defiant, and charming, and Eastwood conveys all pieces of the character well. I feel like Eastwood the performer is never given enough credit for his range, so I was glad to see it put to full effect here. Wiest is the other standout, strongly portraying the complicated feelings Mary has for Earl. Somewhat wasted are Cooper, Pena, and Laurence Fishburne as the DEA agents. They each get moments, particularly Cooper, but these are pretty big names for pretty small parts.
Overall, The Mule is successful, and is an excellent vehicle to bring Clint back to the screen. By being willing to play something of the fool, or at least the patsy, Eastwood continues his work in deconstructing his early screen persona – something that has been a focus of his films as actor/director since at least Unforgiven (I would place the earliest example of this in 1980’s Bronco Billy). To me, this is Eastwood’s best film since 2006’s Letters from Iwo Jima. It’s certainly not a perfect film, but it is very good, and makes for an enjoyable change of pace for an adult audience looking for something at the multiplex this holiday season.