One of my favorite bands is Oasis (some of you may stop reading here). The British outfit began their career with two sure fire classic albums, Definitely Maybe and What’s the Story, Morning Glory? However, during the tail end of the 90’s they began producing sub-par work. The diminishing returns and decline of their music caused whatever hint of a revival to later be declared their “best album since…,” even if the actual product was average. A thought came to me while watching what might be Clint Eastwood’s final acting performance, The Mule: Eastwood, in many respects, is the directorial version of Oasis, a director who began with sure fire classics, but has now been relegated to middling returns, to the point of critical ecstasy whenever something decent is released. The Mule, a crime-based road film, is the very definition of decent.
Eastwood’s film opens with a horn led score, as the camera settles over a field of flowers in Peoria, Illinois. Here, he plays a florist-—a man who’d rather dedicate his time to flowers than his family. Earl Stone, the florist, even skips his daughter Iris’ (Alison Eastwood) wedding to accept an award from a floral society.
What a guy…
A decade later, Stone—who’s lost his home and precious flowering business—turns up on the doorstep of his granddaughter Ginny’s (Taissa Farmiga) engagement party. His daughter hasn’t forgotten him being MIA for her wedding, nor has his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) forgiven the selfish pr*ck for abandoning her during their marriage. To make matters worst, grandpa was supposed to pay for half his granddaughter’s wedding. When Stone is kicked out of the engagement party, a friend of whoever, comes to tell him of a way to make some extra cash. All the elderly man has to do is drive.
Eastwood, for his part, appears to relish thumbing his nose at “Woke” culture. He portrays Stone as a relic, a man out of place, and out of time. “[I like helping] “negro people out,” he says when he stops to assist a black couple with a flat tire. “You’re welcome Dikes,” he exclaims to a female motorcycle gang. A forgiving interpretation would say that Eastwood is fully aware of his nonchalant no filter old man bit, yet there’s the perverse idea that Eastwood, much like his character, is also hiding behind the no filter old man bit. Eastwood, like Stone, lives in days long gone by.
For his new driving gig, the old man becomes a drug mule for a cartel, smuggling cocaine from Texas to Chicago. At his height, he’s clearing 300,000 kilos of cocaine a month across state lines. What starts as a one-time run to pay for his granddaughter’s wedding, becomes multiple smuggling trips as he supports the VFW, fixes the local hockey rink, and pays for his granddaughter’s schooling.
For Stone, though, being a mule isn’t solely for the money. Much like his flower business, he’s the center of attention. The Mexican drug dealers affectionately name him, “Tata” (Spanish for nanny).
The elderly man is soon deeply embroiled in the narcotics world. Nevertheless, we’re never as privy to the inner-workings of these supporting characters’ lives as much as Stone. These figures are left as wooden and flat set pieces. Even Julio (Ignacio Serricchio), a man who becomes his handler, is given no identifying characteristics. In fact, he disappears with zero explanation in the film’s final act.
Tatted up, intimidating, and all drug dealers, the Mexican characters are pure stereotypes. These portrayals would be completely maddening, if Stone’s family weren’t sketched in the same fashion. The women in his life are made to faun over him. They shower him with forgiveness, love him, even for his faults. Eastwood, for his part, at 88 years old, is still a “Ladies Man.” You might vomit in your mouth a bit, as you watch him dance with women who are a third of his age in multiple scenes. In fact, Stone becomes so successful that he’s invited to the head of the cartel’s home (played by Andy Garcia), for a rambunctious party filled with reverie. There, he dances with half-naked women and participates in one of his two 3- ways. Eastwood’s shooting of this scene is particularly nauseating, as he’s put his male gaze on steroids. Never disguising his sole focus, Eastwood films gyrating female flesh, while his bent body grinds against them.
Meanwhile, while Stone enjoys his excesses, there’s Agent Bates (Bradley Cooper). Bates, now relegated to the DEA Chicago field office, is looking to make a “splash,” as his boss (played by Laurence Fishburne) commands. The agent is partnered with Michael Peña, and the two spend the film working to bust the cartel by squeezing an informant. Their sights soon settle on Stone, who’s now the biggest smuggler out there. Cooper and Pena, with little to gnaw on, are given no unique characteristics. The result finds them static in their performances.
Maybe The Mule would be better if the story stopped here, but there are more oxygen draining scenes to come. One in particular has Pena and Cooper, in an attempt to find Eastwood, stopping any truck that resembles his black pickup. In one, a Hispanic man pops out. He’s afraid that he’ll be shot for his race, explaining, “These 5 minutes will be the scariest of my life.” There’s no clear indication whether Eastwood is lampooning Black Lives Matters or is making a statement. Either way, the scene is bungled badly. Lord help cinematographer Yves Bélanger, who had to shoot all of this muck.
The Mule‘s ending inevitably fizzles, while leaving more questions than answers. Maybe the film would be acceptable if the direction wasn’t so half-assed. There’s nothing particularly special about Eastwood’s flat and dry presentation. At points, The Mule borders on Hallmark movie status. One scene in particular finds Stone’s granddaughter crying into the phone because he won’t visit his dying wife. Here, Eastwood cuts Farmiga’s looking space for tension, but nothing else is added to the composition for effect. Instead, her performance wilts into sappiness.
With basic directing and shot selection, and a troubling script, the only saving grace of The Mule is Eastwood’s performance. Far better here than in Trouble with the Curve, he digs deep enough to sprout the last magical vestiges of the Eastwood scowl. Still, even his performative peaks are shadowed by the dialogue his character spouts. Each pang arrives whenever he says, “they all look the same” when referring to Mexicans, or when he speaks broken Spanish to people who are clearly fluent in English because he thinks it builds rapport.
Calling The Mule Eastwood’s best film in the last decade wouldn’t sound outlandish. Then again, that bar is very low. However, just because the film has a couple blooming flowers, doesn’t make the garden fertile. For his part, Eastwood remains the Oasis of directors, still given passes because the failings his previous works allow for the mundane to be rewarded.