Clint Eastwood has a knack for choosing unusual projects. His latest, The Mule, is certainly something unique to the big screen. The true story of a 90-year-old drug trafficker is one of the more original film concepts of 2018. Even though the script falls short in developing worth secondary stories, Eastwood himself makes The Mule stand out with a stellar late-career performance.
Eastwood directs and stars in The Mule. He portrays Earl Stone, patriarch of a family that would rather not have anything to do with him. All of these wounds are self-inflicted. Earl skipped out on his family for decades to focus on his career as an award-winning florist. The Internet induced the collapse of his business, allowing for his side gig as a drug mule.
An ensemble including Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, Diane Wiest, Andy Garcia, Lawrence Fishburne, and Allison Eastwood are present, but are each reduced to surprisingly ineffective screen roles.
Every memorable scene belongs to Eastwood. The 88-year-old thespian dominates The Mule with a stunning performance.
There is not much to love about Earl Stone. He has none of the lovable grandpa qualities normally reserved for octogenarians. Each of Earl’s positives are trumped by negatives. He is charming and cold, generous and selfish, tough and caring. He helps an African-American family change a tire, only to insult them with long-outdated terminology. He peddles drugs, but spreads the money to pay off communal and family debt.
Earl’s duplicitous nature is present early in the film. He skips out on his daughter’s wedding while graciously buying drinks for the hotel bar that is hosting the wedding and a floral convention. His family loathes him. The convention thinks the world of him.
As The Mule progresses, the importance of family becomes the predominant theme of the film. He regrets being a terrible father. Towards the end of the film he tries to pass this message along to Bradley Cooper’s character, a DEA agent who is unwittingly chasing Earl.
This allows for a memorable onscreen passing of the torch to Cooper, whom Eastwood previously directed in American Sniper and may compete with for Best Actor accolades at the Oscars.
The focus on Earl brings out the best attributes and biggest drawbacks of The Mule. The amount of attention Eastwood receives results in a reduction of dramatic possibilities that could have enhanced the drama of the film.
Although limited in number, some of the best scenes involve Cooper and Eastwood’s interaction. There is a potential intriguing subplot between their characters. Instead of fleshing out their relationship more, their dynamic is reduced to the important, but less dramatic lesson about spending time with family.
Few of the excellent supporting actors (special agents and drug dealers alike), leave their mark on the film. Garcia is the only one who gets the opportunity to unleash some gravitas, which he does in spades. Seeing such talent reduced to second-tier status is a constant missed opportunity. The underdeveloped script is a glaring flaw that is almost made up for by the splendid lead.
Overall, The Mule is a solid, but unspectacular film. It is worth seeing to watch Eastwood shine in every scene, although little else about the movie endures. Eastwood’s rough charisma, toughness, and trademark sneer add up to one of the best lead acting performances of 2018.