An Ethics Movie Review: “The Mule”

I was not eager to see “The Mule,” for many reasons. Stories in which the protagonist is a drug dealer don’t interest me at all; I avoided “Breaking Bad” and “Weeds” for the same reason. The popular culture, especially Hollywood, played a major role in breaking down society’s consensus disapproval of recreational drug use, and I hope they are proud of all the harm they have caused, and the greater harm yet to come.

Then there is the fact that seeing Clint Eastwood looking like the Cryptkeeper (from HBO’s “Tales of the Crypt”) depresses me. I remember Clint from his “Rawhide” days, and seeing his ruined beauty makes me feel like I’m watching the villain rot at the end of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” when he “chooses poorly,” but for real. I admired Cary Grant’s decision to stop making movies when he began to stop looking like Cary Grant, and Marlene Dietrich’s determination not to appear in public so that people would remember her as one of Hollywood’s great beauties, and not as an old lady.

But as often in the case, having limited options in a hotel made Eastwood’s latest directorial and performing effort the best of a bad group of entertainment choices. The film is based on the  true story of a ninety-year-old man (Clint isn’t quite that old, but he looks it)  who became a drug mule, transporting  cocaine for a  Mexican drug cartel. The film has an excellent supporting cast including Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Dianne Wiest and Andy Garcia. (who also looks like hell), though none of them have much to do except be props for Clint’s star turn.

To do as little spoiling as possible, I’ll just say that the story involves an aging—aged—narcissist who has neglected his family outrageously, falls into a lucrative gig transporting drugs because he loves to drive, has never had a ticket, and is unlikely to attract attention, and suddenly decides to make the needs of his family a priority over work for the first time in his life, getting him arrested and almost getting him killed.

Clint still has his screen presence and charm, which is fortunate, because the central character, Earl Stone, is a selfish jerk. His toxic personal habits don’t seem so bad when the victims are  drug smugglers, but when, early in the movie, he skips his daughter’s wedding without warning because he’d rather be at a sales convention partying with his colleagues, it is hard to care what happens to him.

We quickly learn that this betrayal was characteristic of Earl, and that he rationalizes them all, arguing that he was absent from his family to provide for them, and is blameless. It’s clearly a lie: his family bores him, and he does exactly what he wants to do, always. Sometimes he helps people and is randomly kind, as when we see him pause in one of his drug runs to help a couple stranded on the road. Other times, he doesn’t give a damn.

When a family argument breaks out as he attempts to attend his grand-daughter’s bridal shower, a guest overhears that Earl has lost his home and business (that’s really why he showed up at his granddaughter’s place, that and the fact that she was the only family member still on speaking terms with him) and gives him a phone number. These people will pay him well just for driving, Earl is told.

Gee, I wonder what that is all about? It’s a mystery! We then enter the unethical world of wilful ignorance. Clint’s character is a veteran, considers himself a law-abiding citizen, and he’s not an idiot, but still cheerily allows a group of Latino men to place an unidentified package in the back of his pick-up truck after telling them that they can’t cut a secret compartment in it. They give him a burner phone, and tell him to answer it day or night. They tell him to park the truck when he reaches his destination, leave the keys in the glove compartment, and that he will find his compensation and the keys there when he returns. What does Earl think he’s doing, if not currying illegal cargo? The fact that he never asks or checks (until a later trip) doesn’t make him any more innocent than the cartel thugs.

After a change at the top of the cartel chain of command results in new and brutal management that isn’t willing to tolerate Earls’ peccadilloes, like delaying his deliveries so he can have threesomes with prostitutes and be the life of the party in honky-tonk bars, the Old Mule, code name Ta-Ta, realizes that he is now owned by murderous criminals. Then, mid-run with the largest payload of coke he or anyone has moved on the road, Earl gets a call from his granddaughter. His ex-wife is dying.

Now Earl faces a dilemma reminiscent of what we discussed on Ethics Alarms here and here, in the matter of the Washington Nationals relief pitcher who took paternity leave and missed a crucial game. (There are significant differences, of course. The pitcher had a contractual right to choose family over his employer’s needs, and the baseball team wasn’t going to have him killed if he blew off the game.) Earl decides to take a detour and go AWOL to comfort his wife. She is touched and grateful, dying with Earl holding her hand. He goes to her funeral, and is finally reconciled with his family. He even is invited to Thanksgiving dinner.

Yet Earl hasn’t changed a bit. He still did what he wanted to do. The drug deliveries were just work to him; they weren’t fun, like partying with the salesmen. Yes, being with his wife this time happened to be the right thing to do, but there was also something in it for him. He wanted to reconcile with his family before he died. He knew he had been a lousy husband and father. This took some courage, but lack of courage is never shown to be one of Earl’s flaws. And the man was 90-years old. At this point in his life, feeling better about himself and convincing himself that he had, in a few days, made up for a lifetime of mistreatment of his family—what a deal!—was more important than living as long as possible.

***

I can’t end this post without noting the review of the film by Chrsty Lemire at the Roger Ebert website. It’s another blatant example of how media progressives drag their political agenda advocacy into every aspect of our lives, part of the ongoing indoctrination process. She writes,

There’s also an icky, creeping sensation of xenophobia that permeates the film. One could imagine “The Mule” being used as an argument in favor of President Trump’s proposed border wall, given its tone-deaf and one-dimensional depiction of the minorities Earl encounters. Casually racist, he refers to blacks and Hispanics in good-naturedly antiquated terms. But then all the Mexicans he works for are scary, gun-toting criminals who want to bring drugs into our country, and many of them are depicted in stereotypical fashion with shaved heads and neck tats. They’re taking advantage of Earl, a hardworking Korean War veteran who’s seen the American Dream collapse beneath him.

Earl is Trump’s proverbial Forgotten Man: Elderly, white and living in the Heartland, he listens to country music and longs for a simpler time before the Internet complicated everything. He’s in your movie theater today, but you could easily imagine him on Fox News tomorrow.

Ugh.  When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

  • I didn’t think about illegal immigration issues once during “The Mule,” and I doubt that Eastwood did, because they have nothing to do with the story, are not alluded to in the film, and are irrelevant to it. I also didn’t think about illegal immigration because I am not clinically deranged by “resistance” politics, like Christy.
  • The negative portrayal of members of a Mexican drug cartel is because these were members of a Mexican drug cartel. Christy wanted some nice cartel members? Maybe have the film show Clint with an adopted Mexican grandson who works to fight climate change?

When a film reviewer is capable of writing politically correct garbage like this, nobody should  care what they think about a movie. Such people are no longer behaving like normal human beings, and what they enjoy or not is a product of their distorted reality.

 

 

24 thoughts on “An Ethics Movie Review: “The Mule”

  1. I liked The Mule just fine, like I do most of Eastwood’s work. He played the part well, was convincing, and the movie was a nice escape into the madness of selfish old men trying to make up for unsatisfactory lives — an otherwise boring subject made interesting by the fact he became a drug smuggler without even caring about the legality of it. He ignored so many red flags you’d have to assume he was colorblind.

    And you’re exactly right about the reviewer — she’s an absolute one-dimensional, incomplete, under-uneducated leftist moonbat with an advanced degree from somewhere expensive in something almost commercially worthless. Perhaps she would argue that the drug cartel members weren’t really bad, they were just trying to make a living in a soulless world that oppresses Latinos and taking advantage of their income inequality.

    I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if so.

    • Perhaps she would argue that the drug cartel members weren’t really bad, they were just trying to make a living in a soulless world that oppresses Latinos and taking advantage of their income inequality.

      And yet, she cannot argue that, because if the cartels are “really bad”, there no conditions that justify asylum….

  2. “(There are significant differences, of course. The pitcher had a contractual right to choose family over his employer’s needs, and the baseball team wasn’t going to have him killed if he blew off the game.)”

    Another significant difference is that the baseball team isn’t a transnational violent crime syndicate.

  3. I am actually at the very end of Season 5 of “Breaking Bad” – for the second time. Hailed as the most critically acclaimed t.v. show of all time I did not the first time, nor do I now, feel that the show is “breaking down society’s consensus disapproval of recreational drug use”. In fact, what strikes me even more the second time around is that the show makes it clear that one small action (no matter how selfish but always viewed as “noble” in the mind of the main character Walter White) has far reaching and devastating results.

    A middle-aged high school chemistry teacher with a disabled son, a wife with an unexpected pregnancy, is diagnosed with lung cancer. Using his chemistry knowledge, he begins to cook the purest of meth – telling himself that he is not “selling” drugs; he’s simply making the product. He does so, and justifies his actions, in order to make sure that there is enough money to take care of his family after his most certain demise. And yet, at every turn over a 5 season series, that one decision proves to be tragic; not only to him but to every single person that comes into contact with the product he’s making. The collateral damage is unimaginable. But the series does its best to show that collateral damage.

    In fact, as I watched it I thought what a wonderful ethics lesson it would make.

    • Your comment reminds me of “The Shield”. Essentially same story template: sympathetic (ha, relative to the rest of the characters) cop makes a few dirty deals until it comes down to shooting and killing another cop. The thing unravels in all sorts of entertaining ways, walking a fine line between police procedural, heartfelt drama, and dark comedy. If you found Breaking Bad entertaining I strongly suggest The Shield, if you can stomach a few very discomforting situations implied about violence and sex.

  4. I thought Clint played the same character in “Mule” as he did in “Gran Torino”. I liked both movies. Eastwood is a good actor but his sneer is a bit hard to take seriously considering it is one of his signature expressions.

    jvb

  5. Interesting post. I liked the movie. And there is much in this post. But, there is this:

    “Then there is the fact that seeing Clint Eastwood looking like the Cryptkeeper (from HBO’s “Tales of the Crypt”) depresses me. I remember Clint from his “Rawhide” days, and seeing his ruined beauty makes me feel like I’m watching the villain rot at the end of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” when he “chooses poorly,” but for real. I admired Cary Grant’s decision to stop making movies when he began to stop looking like Cary Grant, and Marlene Dietrich’s determination not to appear in public so that people would remember her as one of Hollywood’s great beauties, and not as an old lady.“

    This is bias.

    Grant, though I loved his performances, sounds like a narcissist.

    You don’t like seeing Clint as a grizzled old man because you saw him when he was not one.

    Don’t grizzled old men have stories to tell.

    If not Clint, then who?

    George Burns?

    Art Carney?

    Kirk Douglas? (Sure, but he can’t live forever. (Has he died yet? If so, just sub in Michael.))

    Clint is being brave. He is old. And grizzled. But, he is an actor and a director. He is playing the roles he is able to play.

    Old and grizzled gunfighter? Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven.

    Old and Grizzled urbanite? Gran Torino.

    Old and grizzled boxer? Burgess Mere—-Clint Eastwood in that boxing movie where someone other than Apollo Creed died.

    Old and grizzled photographer? Bridges of whatever county.

    Old and grizzled drug dealer? Clint Eastwood in The Mule.

    If you want old and grizzled, you want Clint Eastwood. It was the part he was born to play.

    No, not old and grizzled. People. It just took him his whole career to get to the point where he could play the Crypt-Keeper. But, it is nice to know that if there is a story to be told about an old grizzled guy, there is someone with the pull to tell that story.

    Even if you would rather see him playing the lead to an orangutan….

    -Jut

    • It is bias. But all movie taste is affected by bias. Indeed, movie makers depend on it, including Clint. In fact, he cast himself based on bias (was he the best elderly actor who could play that role? How about Donald Sutherland? Christoper Plummer?Bruce Dern?). Clint’s previous roles carry with him the desirable audience bias that he’s a good guy, unlike, say, if the part had been played by Christopher Lee (I know he’s dead, but he serves the point.)

      No doubt about it: if my vision of Clint still wasn’t based on days when he could have and would have shot up those cartel members trying to bully him and got the girl, then I wouldn’t mind seeing him play an old,old, OLD asshole.

      • No. Clint plays the lead not because of bias. He is the producer.

        Any artist (ANY!) who does a self portrait is not arguing that he has the best subject around. Cheapest maybe, but not best.

        Van Gogh did not paint himself because he was the best subject. He was the cheapest. He was there. And it could not have been a self-portrait without him.

        Your bias may not be Clint’s.

        Yeah, his earlier characters might have kicked the cartels ass. But, he is older and more vulnerable.

        Even in Unforgiven, he was ruthless, but he was not after the women, and had a weird code of ethics (maybe like Hymen Roth).

        He was still admirable for having principles, as bad as they were.

        Gran Torino: old, disconcerted, did not care for changes around him, but did not like his kids either. Yes, he was a badass, and he found something worth more than living.

        The mule: he is the least sympathetic here. But, I just recall the scene off the highway where the cartel thought of shooting him. He was fearless. He just accepted what was going on. And, when he was growing flowers in jail. That seemed to be it. That was his passion. Yes, what you said is right, but, as much as he liked to socialize, he liked to grow flowers.

        -Jut

        • 1. If he is the producer, then he obviously has a bias towards hiring as his lead a certain actor who is very close to the producer. VERY close.
          2. I wrote that Clint’s “Mule” character was brave. Bravery is an ethically neutral virtue. “Scarface” was brave.
          3. Surely you don’t think “The Mule” is a self-portrait!

    • I’m with you on this Jut. I especially enjoy seeing Clint perform because he hasn’t made himself look unnatural and alien like with oodles of plastic surgery like other stars. He looks like an old guy who is confident enough (especially in Hollyweird) to not look like an expensive butcher had at it with his face.

      Also hiding so people don’t see you as old, and therefore a natural human being who as humans do, age, seems so utterly vain that I can’t respect it. Perhaps our society would be a little kinder to the elderly if we stop hiding them away from public view because they’ve aged.

  6. I’m not trying to trip you up here Jack, but I saw Marlene Dietrich myself, on stage, in the lounge of the Fairmont Hotel in San Fransisco in December of 1973. She was 82 years old at that time I think….maybe 85. She wore a gold sequinned gown and heels. Her voice was guttural, gravelly and very German. It was something to see, no beauty in heavy make up, but all I could think of was that she entertained for Nazi officers. It was not an electrifying performance and it would have been ok if she had retired earlier, which she did not….depends on what you call old I guess.

    • all I could think of was that she entertained for Nazi officers.

      You aren’t the only one who had that impression. I can remember my father’s family rehashing ugly rumors about Marlene in the 50s. As far as I could find out, however, Dietrich was apolitical when young (she left Germany in 1930, during the Weimar Republic) and an American citizen and staunch anti-Nazi by1939, the time the war got going. She did at one time go to “rescue” her sister only to find out that sis was doing just fine as a collaborator — Marlene never spoke of her again. The misinformation probably stems from her singing in German the then wildly popular and officially banned “Lili Marlene.” The song was played at the end of every Soldatensender program on direction from the O.S.S. (the forerunner of the CIA) Morale Office. Many popular singers appeared on the same broadcasts: Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, etc.

      For that, and her work with the USO …She toured the US from January 1942 to September 1943 (appearing before 250,000 troops on the Pacific Coast leg of her tour alone) and was reported to have sold more war bonds than any other entertainer. In 1945 the U.S. government awarded Dietrich the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

      According to a history of the “black” radio programs, they “were particularly effective with the enemy civilian and military populations. The U.S. Strategic Bombing survey discovered that the programs were just as devastating to German morale as an air raid. [They] succeeded in raising the level of skepticism so high that many people no longer believed Nazi propaganda.” Of course, the Allied soldiers could receive the same broadcasts but they had AFR (Armed Forces Radio). So bits of Bing and Dinah would come through as innocent but Marlene’s songs, sung in German on the “black” broadcasts, in her highly recognizable voice, would be seen as traitorous to the Americans, British and French with whom the English versions were equally popular.

      https://www.uso.org/stories/2414-marlene-dietrich-most-patriotic-women-in-world-war-ii

  7. Search: Variety review of Tea with The Dames. Trailer follows:

    as an argument for not applauding “Cary Grant’s decision to stop making movies when he began to stop looking like Cary Grant, and Marlene Dietrich’s determination not to appear in public so that people would remember her as one of Hollywood’s great beauties, and not as an old lady.”

    Of the Dames in their 80’s — Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright who together have hundreds of stage and screen roles behind them — the first three are still active in their profession; only Plowright, now 90, has retired, due to blindness. The “old ladies” meet to gossip, drink not-tea and laugh at each other’s foibles, reminiscing over a lifetime of friendship and rivalry … the good, the bad and a bit of the other

    Perhaps it is the difference between actors and movie “stars”, but these are the gals – and the guys – who have a passion and a voice for what they do, and can still act good-looking, whatever age they are, when the role calls for it.

    • I very much think that the movie star/actor dichotomy is the key. Actors disappear into their roles, movie stars merge their own images into the characters they play. Tom Cruise, who is an excellent actor, always plays some mutation of Tom Cruise, maybe dark, maybe comic, but he’s always the cocky loner. Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Grant, Cagney, Henry Fonda; Dietrich, all the sex symbols, Judy Garland, Greer Garson, even Bette Davis, who was as good an actress as any who ever appeared on film, they all built a personal image in their roles. (There are occasional forays against type, but those are recognized as spoofs at the time, as when tough guy Lee Marvin played a silly drunk gunfighter in “Cat Ballou.”

      • On your side of the room, it just occurred to me that Grant and Dietrich were also of another generation, one in which there were no (or rare) leading roles for the older performers who were not character actors. Young and beautiful was the rule. Even Shirley lost a lot of her fans when she turned teen (but so do they all, no?).

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