Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Taissa Farmiga
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Sam Dolnick, Nick Schenk
Crime/Drama/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: December 14, 2018
Greg, let’s not be an ass. Let’s get right to The Mule.
I stubbornly agreed to see this film about a 90ish drug runner. Let’s recap:
We meet Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood), a floral horticulturalist who has fallen on hard financial times. His business has foreclosed and he is estranged from both his wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and daughter Alison (Alison Eastwood). He gets a tip from a stranger that a good way to make some money is to deliver packages from a tire store to a parking lot out of state. Sure enough, Earl is given a huge wad of cash for his delivery. He swears it will be the only time he will do these deliveries.
To make amends with his daughter and ex-wife, Earl spends his newfound funds on his grand-daughter’s wedding. He gets a call to do a second run and despite being told not to, he looks in the bag. It’s filled with cocaine. When a K9 unit pulls him over he takes quick action by wiping Ben Gay on his hands and petting the dog’s nose and face, thus thwarting the dog’s ability to smell the contraband. He uses this new income to buy a nice truck and bail out the local VFW hall.
Greg, The Mule is yet another shining coup for the eternal Clint Eastwood. To be honest, judging from the trailers, I didn’t hold out much hope that this move would have much to offer. Turns out it’s a heartwarming tale of redemption for our hero Earl, who like many heroes, transforms from a selfish ass motivated by greed into selfless, enlightened man motivated by doing the right thing. This metamorphosis, which is at the heart of all hero mythology, is handled beautifully by Eastwood in The Mule.
In some ways this film is reminiscent of the 1993 classic film The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. We have a good cop played by Bradley Cooper who pursues a guy who really isn’t a bad man played by Eastwood. As in The Fugitive, the cop and criminal have an encounter before the actual arrest, and at the end when the arrest is finally made, there is mutual respect between the two. Of course, a major difference in the two films is that unlike Ford, Eastwood actually does the crime and will serve time. Eastwood is the classic “tragic hero” in that he’s a good man who makes poor decisions and then self-destructs.
Greg, in 2019 we’re now rating “the message” of the movie, and The Mule gives us a good place to start. We just reviewed a Jennifer Lopez film called Second Act which also emphasizes the dangerous consequences of not being one’s true self. Lopez plays a woman who feels she has to pretend to be someone better than she is in order to succeed in life. She’s caught in the lie and suffers the consequences. Similarly in The Mule, Eastwood’s character is also trying to be someone he’s not, namely, a rich hotshot who feels he has to impress everyone and save everyone with his money.
Like Lopez, Eastwood means well but is caught and must therefore suffer. In classic hero mythology, the hero’s journey always ends with the hero knowing his true self, and also knowing that the price of feeding the false self’s appetite is always too high. So the message is: “Just Be Yourself”. Or better yet, “Be Your Best Self”. All Earl’s family wanted from him was his time. He didn’t need to be rich, he just needed to be available. Early finally figures this out at the end of the film, when he sacrifices wealth and almost his life to be available to his dying wife.
Scott, what movie did you see? In the movie I saw, Clint Eastwood pays a greedy man who avoided his wife and child during his married years and ultimately falls into the job of transporting hundreds of kilos of cocaine, thus destroying thousands of lives. He uses his ill-gotten goods to buy the love, admiration, and affection of others through his illegal pursuits. I do not find this in any way heroic.
We disagreed on two other films last year that tried to use the drug-lord-as-hero approach, and I am still unswayed. In White Boy Rick it’s the same story only in this case it’s a young teen who is doing the drug running. And in The First Purge a drug kingpin fights back against the evil government officials who are using The Purge to kill off those who are a strain on the economy – because he doesn’t want anyone damaging his community.
In all three cases, we’re witness to Hollywood trying to make a hero out of someone who is actively involved in illegal activities that directly harm their communities. There is absolutely nothing heroic in these characters. Clint Eastwood based this film on a 2014 New York Times article about an 88-year-old mule. In that article, the man had been transporting drugs for decades. And he did not use the money to better his community – he spent it on himself.
I don’t know what message Clint Eastwood is trying to deliver with this film. Is it funny or comical that an old man makes a living selling drugs? Or is he trying to show that old people are still valuable – even it its just for delivering cocaine? Is he trying to sell us on the idea that it’s okay to break the law and distribute a community pariah if you use the money to help others? There is no clear message I can draw from this film other than Clint Eastwood has lost his mind.
Greg, I’m clearly more libertarian than you are when it comes to recreational drug use. That explains why you see Earl as evil whereas I see him as simply misguided.
My view is that this film represents yet another fine outing for the ageless Clint Eastwood. In The Mule, we have a wonderful story of redemption. It’s not a perfect film by any means. For example, there’s no chance that Earl would ever really address an African-American as a “negro”. He isn’t stupid and crass; he’s just old. But overall, The Mule hits most of the right notes, giving us an effective hero story along with a lovely message about the importance of “being there” for family rather than being obsessed by the almighty dollar. I give this film a rating of 4 Reels out of 5.
Our hero Earl traverses the classic hero’s journey, first by being “called” to deliver illegal goods in the misbelief that more money would solve all his problems. When his money only adds to this problems, Earl is forced to confront the real issue, namely, his inability to achieve intimacy with his wife and daughter. It’s a great transformation for Earl, and having transformed himself, he transforms everyone around him. I give our hero 4 Hero points out of 5.
I’ve already gone over the film’s message of knowing one’s true priorities and becoming one’s best self. It’s a nice message delivered in a very effective manner. I give it 4 Message points out of 5.
The Mule was a well-written and directed film that was based on the false premise that dealing drugs is OK if you do good things with the money. If this had been a story about a young man doing the same things, there is no way it would have resonated with audiences. Clint Eastwood is playing off the notion of an old guy playing it cool with felons. I don’t find it funny. And I don’t think that using the money to save a wedding, patch up with ex-wives, or save a VFW makes it alright. I give The Mule just 1 Reel out of 5 because of the craft of the filmmaking.
Earl doesn’t follow the hero’s journey in any way. He knew what he was doing was wrong from the beginning. He uses money to regain the trust and love of his family – and his fellow veterans. He distributes a drug that is detrimental to society and he enjoys it. The fact that he pleads guilty at the end of the film doesn’t endear me to him in the least – because that’s not the way the original Earl went down. It’s just the way that Eastwood tries to endear us to him one last time. I give Earl just 1 Hero out of 5 (because it’s to technically challenging to find the ‘0’ heroes icon in WordPress).
Finally, the message of this story is something we both have discussed already. I don’t know what Eastwood is telling us in this story. Earl broke the law. He used the money to buy love and affection. And in the end plead guilty to doing it. There’s no clear message here and I award The Mule 0 Message points.