Clint Eastwood has not had a great 2018. Granted, there aren’t a whole lot of eighty-eight-year-olds cranking out movies on a yearly basis, so when you see someone of his caliber still being able to come out with not one, but two, there’s some merit to that. However, if you saw or even remember The 15:17 to Paris – it came out in February – it was probably pretty obvious that didn’t go over very well. It was an admirable effort, and certainly had its heart in the right place by centering on a worthwhile true story, but by casting the real-life heroes – non-actors, essentially – the gravitas of the film fell incredibly flat and lifeless. As it stands, the biographical thriller currently sits in the penultimate position on my list for the year, my second-least favorite movie of 2018, and the worst of anything I’ve seen Eastwood make. That said, I was incredibly stoked for his follow-up offering, The Mule, as it saw him return to leading man status for the first time in seven years, his last being the tepid baseball dramedy Trouble with the Curve. And it promised me everything I could want from him: a pseudo fact-based tale of American peril and peculiarity; an all-star cast; and him looking grizzled and on-edge from scene to scene. But then I saw the movie. And let me tell you, it delivers very little on any of those fronts. While Eastwood gives a suitably believable performance, probably his best since Gran Torino if we’re being technical, neither him nor the rest of the feature resemble anything like the promotional material. Instead we’re treated to scene after scene of his character bemoaning the younger generations in an attempt to get cheap laughs out of the audience, and a preponderance of emotionality that isn’t given nearly the proper dramatic heft it needs to resonate. While there are plenty of worse movies from 2018 than The Mule, it has to go down as one of the most disappointing, right next to The Predator.
In The Mule, ninety-year-old horticulturalist Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) has been ostracized from his family due to his emotional negligence, continually believing that he needs to be successful in the outside world over being successful in his own household. When he finds himself wanting to make amends by financing his granddaughter Ginny’s (Taissa Farmiga) wedding, he is approached by a man who offers to pay him a handsome sum for merely transporting a mysterious shipment from Texas to Illinois. Naïve and willing, Earl begins driving cargo after cargo past state lines, becoming their regular with nary a worry. That is until while on one run he discovers he’s been hauling cocaine for the Mexican cartel the entire time. Meanwhile, DEA Agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) is determined to shut down the cartel’s operation, and is hot on Earl’s trail. With the DEA and the cartel to worry about, Earl will have to come to the conclusion that supporting your family isn’t enough; you also have to be there for them.
The Mule leans heavily into the thematics of the family aspect as a way of rounding out Earl’s character, and though that’s probably not how I would have gone about telling this story, I don’t necessarily rebuke them for going down that route. That said, the way they handle it is extremely clunky. There’s that old adage, “show don’t tell,” but instead of letting the viewer gain a good grasp of Earl’s relationship with his family through fluid storytelling, right off the bat we’re simply informed of where he stands, almost like we’re arriving seventy years too late to their lives and not knowing what to make heads or tails of it all. And while Clint Eastwood and Dianne Wiest – who plays his ex-wife – are proven talents, it can’t feel more like they plopped these recognizable stars in a room and gave them words to say to each other. To that point, the movie is written by Nick Schenk, who most recently did The Judge, another good story undermined by shoddy characterizations and stale dialogue. Seriously, the characters in this one are so blasé and one-dimensional – save for Earl, he being the lead protagonist, of course – that they might as well have portrayed them as puppets and set the whole thing in a therapist’s office. Because at the end of the day, these aren’t actual themes and characters, but merely the ideas of them, incompetently rendered on the screen. While they try to give depth to Bradley Cooper’s character, largely as a parallel to Eastwood’s, never do we see with our own eyes the personal life he describes. Instead we’re again informed about his forgetfulness and neglect as a husband instead of shown, which is in essence lazy writing. So all you’ve really got to rely on is Eastwood’s performance, and though he does an admirable job, the character is hardly a reflection of the weighty themes the film wants to convey, and ultimately diverts it from the path it should have taken. If anything, though, maybe this film will turn people on to an actually hilarious Australian crime film called The Mule from 2014, starring Hugo Weaving. That one literally involves drug enforcement officers waiting days for a perp to poop out the drugs he’s eaten so they can formally arrest him. It’s great. Watch that. Not this.
Final Score: 3/10