2 / 5 stars 2 out of 5 stars.
The director’s second film in a year is a strangely inelegant tale cursed with a clumsy script, uneasy politics and a lethargic pace
Benjamin Lee – The Guardian
There’s been an air of mystery lingering around Clint Eastwood’s drug-running drama The Mule, which, despite some considerable star power and an effectively tense trailer, has been kept from critics until the very last second. It’s become a rather telling sign of a studio either unsure of how to position a film or, more likely, a studio aware that they have a disaster on their hands.
Released in the middle of awards season, it’s clear that despite some Oscars prognosticators suggesting it could be a contender, The Mule is most definitely not. But exactly what it is remains difficult to decipher. That aforementioned trailer, pushing it as a nervy nail-biter, is something of a canny mis-sell, for Eastwood’s film is more of a slow-paced drama existing within the trappings of a crime thriller. But yet as a drama, it’s frustratingly insubstantial, failing to provide enough of an emotional centre or a convincing payoff. It’s also dogged by strange, oddly inelegant, storytelling, stranger still when compared to some of Eastwood’s latterday highs from Mystic River to Changeling to Million Dollar Baby.
It errs closer to his more recent misfires, such as this year’s misjudged terrorism tale The 15:17 to Paris, and he’s chosen to follow a film about a terrorist with alleged ties to radical Islam with a film about a Mexican drug cartel. In the film, Eastwood plays Earl, a veteran struggling to survive financially, facing the foreclosure of his business. He’s also failing his family, divorced from his wife and being pushed out of his daughter’s life after skipping her wedding for a day lily convention (!).
So when he’s approached about a job, he’s intrigued. All he needs to do is drive, just with a valuable package of drugs in the back of his car. Earl soon becomes a wildly successful drug-runner, able to drive for hours without raising suspicion but when an eager DEA agent (Bradley Cooper) starts to dig deep, Earl’s life is put on the line.
Loosely inspired by the true story of a 90-year-old man who became the most successful drug mule in the history of the Sinaloa cartel, there’s clearly the nugget of an interesting story to be told. It’s so rare that we see a central character in his 80s and while Eastwood has been busy behind the camera in recent years, we haven’t seen much of him in front and, if nothing else, The Mule provides proof of his considerable star presence.
But the script, from Gran Torino co-writer Nick Schenk, fails to match its star. Early on there are warning signs with fine actors like Dianne Wiest, playing Earl’s ex-wife, and Laurence Fishburne, playing a special agent, lumped with dry, exposition-heavy dialogue and, rather than a slickly unfolding plot, we have a lethargic collection of flat scenes. Earl’s continuation within the world of drug-running develops a clumsy, video game style evolution (the exact moment he’s paid for one thing, something else immediately rears its head) and any stabs at tension are rote and familiar (at one point Cooper’s unaware agent follows Earl out from a diner and says “Excuse me (dramatic pause) you’ve forgotten this,” handing him his flask).
As a character study, it’s also a non-started for Earl is a confounding and troubling yet thinly etched protagonist, whose bigotry is often played for confused laughs (whether it’s calling a black couple “negroes”, a Mexican duo “beaners” or being given the permission to call a lesbian group of bikers “dykes”) before being ultimately excused by Cooper’s staggeringly underwritten agent, who tells him: “It’s good to speak to one of you guys. You’ve lived so long, you’ve lost your filter.” It sits uncomfortably alongside a bizarre scene of a wrongly accused Hispanic man being pulled over by agents whose panicked, on-the-nose explanation of his fears of racial profiling is comically pronounced for, well, what effect exactly?
There’s a more nuanced portrait to be told here of a man using his white privilege to excel within a rather particular world of crime but there’s little nuance on display. Female characters are either shrill shrews or bikini-clad hussies desperate to sleep with an 88-year-old man (Earl manages two threesomes with attractive young women in the film) and an odd, leering montage of asses grinding to music feels like an uncomfortable and unnecessary deviation into soft porn. The Andy Garcia-led cartel is presented in a cartoonish one-note fashion and while we’re instructed to be intimidated by their villainy, we’re never really forced to question the ethics of Earl’s criminality, helping to further push drugs around the country and into the hands of addicts.
What shocks the most about The Mule though is just how messy and underdeveloped the whole endeavour feels from the lazily circumstantial or just plain dimwitted plotting (in one scene, Earl bribes a sheriff with a tub of caramel popcorn) to the pedestrian visuals to the sometimes thunderingly bad dialogue (a character once refers to lily-obsessed Earl as a “late bloomer”). With two Eastwood films released in one year, both curiously underwhelming, the clear lesson seems to be: do less.
- The Mule is released in the US on 14 December