The Mule is a solid, if unremarkable, late-period film from Eastwood that coasts by on the icon's natural star power and charisma.
Arriving in theaters just 10 months after his The 15:17 to Paris, The Mule is Clint Eastwood's second directorial effort of 2018, and his first starring role since 2012's Trouble With the Curve. Despite having awards season juggernaut A Star is Born and tentpole Aquaman this fall and winter, Warner Bros. opted to make Eastwood's crime drama (which is based on a bizarre true story) a late addition to their release slate, giving some hope that it could crash the Oscar race much like Eastwood's American Sniper did a few years back. Unfortunately, the film can't quite get there. The Mule is a solid, if unremarkable, late-period film from Eastwood that coasts by on the icon's natural star power and charisma.
In The Mule, Eastwood portrays Earl Stone, an elderly horticulturalist who mistakingly put his work before everything else, fracturing his relationship with his family. Most infamously, he missed his daughter Iris' (Alison Eastwood) wedding, opting instead to attend an industry convention where he receives an award. Several years later, things only get worse for Earl when his business faces foreclosure, putting him out of work and hurting for money. Estranged from his ex-wife Mary (Diane Wiest) and Iris, Earl has no place to go.
While attending a family party, Earl is approached by a man who claims to know people that will give Earl work simply for driving his truck. Feeling that's simple enough, Earl unknowingly becomes a drug mule for the cartel, transporting large amounts of cocaine to drop off sites and earning substantial money. But as Earl begins to enjoy the fruits of his new labor, the DEA looks to crack down on the cartel operation, with agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) eager to make a significant bust by tracking down the one the cartel calls Tata.
The Mule's greatest asset is Eastwood himself, as the Hollywood legend proves that even at age 88, he can still carry a film on his shoulders and be an entertaining presence. His Earl is a deeply flawed individual, but Eastwood is able to make him a likable protagonist with a turn that is both amusing and poignant, depending on what the scene calls for. Especially early on, Eastwood leans into the oddity of Earl's situation, and there's much fun to be had during the sequences where Stone is on the road, singing old pop tunes and marveling at his sudden change of fortune. As the film progresses, Eastwood handles the more dramatic segments with grace and skill, coming off as a reflective old man filled with regret. And of course, he has moments where the tough and gritty Dirty Harry persona shines through.
Unfortunately, Eastwood's Earl is the only character in the film that's truly memorable. Many of the supporting cast mainly exist to serve a function in the narrative, and the script by Nick Schenk rarely digs beyond the surface. The exception here is Cooper's Bates, who's afforded more shading than others by virtue of having a couple of key scenes, but that still isn't enough to make the DEA agent more than just a typical authority figure trying to move up the ladder. Most disappointingly, Earl's family members are shortchanged here, despite that dynamic being an integral part of The Mule's emotional core. Many of the scenes involving Stone and his relatives are hamstrung by clichéd dialogue about their tumultuous past and aren't fleshed out enough to make the impact Eastwood intended. Other big name actors, like Michael Peña as Bates' DEA partner, Laurence Fishburne as the DEA boss, and Andy Garcia as cartel head Laton, are essentially wasted in thankless roles that do not require them to do much at all. To be fair, none of the actors are bad, it's just this is clearly Eastwood's show.
Another flaw, which may be a combination of the screenplay and Eastwood's directorial approach, is that The Mule can be far too easygoing at times for its own good. After Earl starts his new job, it falls into a repetitive pattern where Stone quickly solves whatever troubles life throws at him by making another drug run and using his payment to fix things. While this does contribute to the film finding its pleasant tone, it also saps it of having any real dramatic stakes, as Earl completes his work with minimal consequences or threats. Additionally, it takes a while for Stone's storyline to truly intertwine with the DEA subplot (the initial scenes with Cooper are more to establish the agency's presence in the movie), minimizing any thrills that would come from a cat-and-mouse aspect. Things start to pick up a bit during the third act, but by then it's a case of too little, too late.
There's no denying the true story this film is based on is quite fascinating and was ripe for a film adaptation, but an argument can be made The Mule isn't the best version of that movie. Eastwood is renowned for moving through his projects quickly (The Mule was filmed this summer), and he might have benefitted from giving this venture a little more room to breathe so the creative team had time to fully iron out the story and all its vital elements. In some respects, The Mule as presented feels a bit like the first pass at a script, featuring all of the expected and necessary components - but a few of them are inherently flawed and might have been improved with some revisions. It's amazing Eastwood is able to churn out films at this pace in his advanced age, though hopefully next time he pumps the brakes to help his film reach its full potential.
Eastwood comes with an Academy Award pedigree, but The Mule has (understandably so) been missing from several of the Oscar precursor nominations, making it a tricky one to fully recommend during the busy holiday season. Longtime fans of Eastwood (both the star and the director) will find enjoyment in this film, but it isn't one cinephiles need to rush out to the theater to see in order to keep up with all of the awards contenders (especially with other titles like Vice on the horizon). That isn't to say The Mule is a bad film, it just doesn't reach the heights of some of Eastwood's other works. If interested parties have time in their schedule, it might be worth the trip; otherwise, it'd be the ideal rental for a rainy day.
The Mule is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 116 minutes and is rated R for language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments!
- The Mule (2018) release date: Dec 14, 2018