Hot Take: Clint Eastwood doing Clint Eastwood things. It’s not as bad as that makes it sound.
As a director, Clint Eastwood might be one of the more underrated auteurs of our generation. Hell, I’m going to bet that some reading “Eastwood” and “auteur” in the same sentence might take offense to the combination. The Mule is Eastwood’s 38th film in the director’s chair and while they aren’t always winners (see The 15:17 to Paris from earlier this year), Eastwood has an impressive resume of films and 2 Best Director Academy Awards (for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby) and 2 losing nominations (for Mystic River and Letters from Iwo Jima) to his credit. It might have to do with Eastwood’s outspoken personal stances on, well, pretty much everything which portrays him as a curmudgeon and how often that carries over to his on-screen portrayals but that shouldn’t take away from Eastwood’s efforts as a filmmaker. Many of his films feature him solely behind the camera and when he does take on a role in front of the camera, you understand why he was chosen for that role. The Mule is no exception and while it’s tough to sell a lack of a filter as lovable in 2018, Eastwood makes his best attempt and it ain’t half bad. There are only a few cringe-worthy moments of casual racism and Eastwood’s Earl is flawed and doesn’t get off completely Scot-free here.
In The Mule, Earl (Eastwood) is a horticulturist and veteran who spent most of his formative years more concerned about his business and lifestyle than his family. Divorced and ignored by his daughter for missing her wedding, Earl falls on hard times when the Internet wipes out his flower business. While trying to be a part of his granddaughter’s wedding, Earl is shunned by his family but meets a man who tells Earl he can make some money just driving. Just driving turns out to be more than just driving as Earl’s old age and spotless criminal record gives him the perfect cover to become a drug mule for a cartel running drugs across Illinois. Completely off the radar of DEA agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Pena), Earl uses his newfound wealth to help renovate the local VFW, get his home back and begin reparations with his family.
As the film progresses, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to Earl’s faults. For the most part, it seems like he means well so when he stops to help a young black couple with their flat tire and makes casual racist remarks, the audience mostly chuckles. It’s not quite to the level of Gran Torino but it has those same elements. Some might not find that acceptable and some critics have been openly critical of Eastwood’s personality being thrust into his character here with monologues on everything from the Internet to cell phones to anything else you’d expect your 90-year-old grandpa to bitch about. That being said, the film is not a disappointment and Eastwood’s Americana tales have a heartwarming quality to them despite their casual insults.
The Mule won’t go down as one of Eastwood’s top films but it’ll closer to the top than the bottom. Earl Stone, the film’s main character, is a little too close to Leo Sharp, the main character Eastwood directed and portrayed in Gran Torino, to neither get overly impressed nor overly offended by as we’ve seen this from Clint before. However, The Mule should be commended for what it is and not condemned for what it isn’t. If you walked into the theater expecting anything different after viewing any of Eastwood’s body of work, shame on you, not him.
You’ve been longing for a slightly more subtle take on Eastwood’s character from Gran Torino.
If you wanted to experience casual racism, you’d go spend more time at Grandpa Charlie’s house.