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. Continue reading