Sunday, May 05, 2019

"The Mule": review

Based on a true story about an octogenarian drug mule who worked for the Sinaloa Cartel, Clint Eastwood's 2018 "The Mule" is the story of a war vet and horticulturist named Earl Stone (Eastwood, who directs and stars). Stone has spent his best years being the center of attention as the charming owner of an award-winning flower business. His personal life is a mess, though: he has spent those same years largely ignoring and neglecting his family. His daughter Iris (real-life daughter Alison Eastwood) refuses to speak to Earl; his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) is extremely bitter. Only his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) is on speaking terms with him.

After a nasty encounter with his family at Ginny's wedding-rehearsal dinner, Earl gets an offer to become a driver for some shady folks. All he has to do is take a parcel, usually in a suitcase or a duffel bag, to a hotel near Chicago to be dropped off. He is then to toss his keys in the glove compartment, leave his truck for one hour, and when he returns, he'll find some money along with his truck's keys. He's also given a burner phone, which he must throw away after every dropoff ("That's a perfectly good phone!" Earl grouses). Earl's first run goes off without a hitch; he receives several tens of thousands of dollars in cash for his trouble, and he suddenly finds himself in a position to pay off his debts, un-foreclose his flower business, and pay for both his granddaughter's wedding expenses and her cosmetology education.

The DEA catches wind of a huge amount of cocaine entering Chicago—not just a few kilos a month, but hundreds of kilos a month. Agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) is put on the case by his boss Carl (Laurence Fishburne). The DEA, even with the help of a Filipino mole, actually has trouble tracking Earl down because Earl has no criminal record and an absolutely squeaky-clean driving record. The DEA knows they're after someone nicknamed "Tati" (Spanish slang for "Gramps"), and they finally manage to figure out that Tati is driving a black pickup of some kind, but for a long stretch of the movie, there's almost no other data for the DEA to go on.

So the movie follows three subplots: (1) Earl's deal with the devil as he begins to realize what he's gotten into as a drug mule, (2) Earl's attempts at reconciliation with his family, and (3) the DEA's relentless hunt for the elusive Tati. There are only so many possible conclusions to a story in which the walls are closing in, and the story is very much about the ruthless pressure of time, which never stops ticking. Time's up for Earl insofar as the law is after him; it's also up for Earl in that he's nearing 90, so if he doesn't settle his affairs quickly, he'll lose any chance at absolution. These subplots are woven into each other in accordance with the slow, stately rhythm of Clint Eastwood's filmmaking style.

Watching an Eastwood film is a lot like watching Clint Eastwood himself go for a jog: everything is deliberately paced, meticulous, and unassuming. This aspect of Eastwood's filmmaking has only become more pronounced as Eastwood has gotten older; I can see that it's been dividing critics of late. The younger critics chafe at the sleepy nature of the later Eastwood's films; for this crowd, his movies lack punch and drama. But I think the older critics understand that Eastwood's direction has grown and matured along with the man himself, and he no longer concerns himself with what the younger crowd might want; he doesn't necessarily care about being "in touch." Like Eastwood's Walt Kowalski in "Gran Torino," and even like Eastwood's 70s-era Dirty Harry, Earl Stone is a man out of time: politically incorrect, insensitive without meaning to be, and barely able to function in the modern world of cell phones and texting. Despite the soft touch that Eastwood applies to his films, there's very much a hard-edged, libertarian subtext of Take it or leave it.

Overall, I found "The Mule" entertaining; along with the drama, there are light dashes of comedy. But the film does suffer from one major implausibility: Earl Stone seems way too naive when he makes that first run. Surely the man must know that he's running drugs. When he first pulls into that shadowy garage and gets surrounded by tattooed Latinos with machine guns, he has to understand he's getting involved in something highly illegal. How could he not? But the movie portrays Earl as naive enough not to sneak a peek at his own cargo until after he's done a few runs, and it's only upon actually seeing the cocaine that everything clicks for him. That element of the story stretched plausibility for me.

So it comes down to this: if you've seen a few latter-day Eastwood films, and you're fine with his directorial style, then you'll definitely enjoy "The Mule." If, on the other hand, you're impatient with slow-burn drama and deliberate pacing, then "The Mule" won't be your kind of movie. Wait twenty years and come back to it.

1 comment:

John Mac said...

Sounds like my kind of movie. I might have to watch it a little at a time, though, given my short attention span these days.