Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated R, 116 minutes
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood’s THE MULE is based on a thought-provoking New York Times article about a thrilling cat-and-mouse game, a true-life tale that’s also a treatise on modern capitalism and the changing socio-political landscape. But the film takes the elegantly-written and stimulating story and changes it into something virtually weightless and, at times, baffling. This ripped-from-the-headlines story about a 90-year-old horticulturist and war vet turned drug mule is practically retrofitted to Eastwood’s cinematic sensibilities (aged down a smidge to suit his real age) and assuredly hits on a few of his beloved hallmarks, yet the delivery feels nothing short of muted and manufactured.
When we first meet Earl Stone (Eastwood) in 2005, he’s a jovial, sharp-dressed daylily farmer with a thriving business. But as he nurtured his award-winning bulbs, he neglected his family – ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood). It’s that inattention, coupled with the internet’s dominance, that, within twelve years time, makes Earl lose control of his business and most of his family’s respect. His granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) still believes in him despite her mother’s estrangement. Facing foreclosure, he takes a job driving a duffle bag of goods from Illinois,to El Paso, Texas – no questions asked. However, after the first two jobs increase in size and payment, leaving him flush with cash, he discovers the bags contain cocaine and his client is Mexican cartel boss Laton (Andy Garcia). The deal gives him a windfall of cash, letting him buy back his property, restore community hotspots and put Jenny through cosmetology school. Better yet, he’s happy being a “somebody” again.
At the same time Earl is finding success and revived happiness in his new job, spikey-haired, brunette DEA Agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) has been assigned to track down who’s aiding the spread of coke on the streets of Chicago – and he’s got somethin’ to prove. He, along with partner Agent Treviño (Michael Peña), are given intel that a figure nicknamed “Tata” by cartel members is transporting the goods. As Bates and Treviño close in, Earl continues to dig himself deeper into a dangerous organization that he has no business being a part of.
What makes author Sam Dolnick’s original article work so well is not only how it weaves the details of the crime and pursuit together, but also how it explores the mystery behind Earl’s mercurial, mischievous motivations.Is this guy some kind of mad genius manipulating a system he feels did him wrong, or is he an easily-misled old man with dementia? It’s left to the reader to form their judgement – but this cinematic iteration is lacking that tangible push-pull of sympathy for the main character.
Instead, Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk’s adaptation has you believe what drives the character is pure hero-status. He subtly rationalizes his actions; he’s doing good in the community; he’s helping his family; he’s traveling again like he loves to do. Later, he heroically redeems himself through confession, preferring to be seen as “a someone out there than a damn failure at home.” There’s no way matinee-idol Eastwood would play anyone resembling a doddering old man. In fact, the filmmakers take great pains to show Earl as incredibly virile, flirting with women, actively ogling much younger women (via the camera’s representation of the male gaze, gliding up and down bikini-clad prostitutes), and having two threesomes.
Where the picture finds its verve isn’t necessarily in Earl’s dramatic familial relationship dynamics, or the unlikely friendships he cultivates with cartel workers, but rather when he’s out on the road, traveling across the country. Earl sings classic pop songs to himself. He even changes the lyrics to other songs caught on the radio to their more ribald versions solely for his own amusement. He meets a group of bikers, Dykes on Bikes (their real moniker), at a fruit stand and converses with them, ending in a sure to be meme’d greeting, “You’re welcome, dykes!”
Though the article and the film both contain statements about technology shaking up previous generations’ lifestyles (here, Eastwood rails multiple times about younger generations’ attachment to their smartphones),the filmmakers take things a step too far in trying to be socially relevant, negating its good intentions. Earl’s casual racism, shown in scenes where he calls Mexicans “beaners” and a family he helps “negroes,” is played comedically like it’s quaint. But later, in a sequence where a Latino gentleman is stopped by the DEA, Eastwood makes sure to get generous close-ups of that gentleman repeatedly stating, “this is the most dangerous five minutes of my life,” bringing to light the dangers of traffic stops for people of color.
With an entirely predictable climax and nary any sense of mounting intensity in getting there, THE MULE fails to fully deliver the goods.
THE MULE opens on December 14.