I thought Green Book would be the uncomfortable family movie pick this holiday season, but I was wrong. There is another contender! A competitor to surpass Green Book in terms of “Damn, really?” and “Ugh, no” moments, another film that is utterly lacking in self-awareness, another movie that thinks it is making one point when it is really making another point.
You know how in The Wire, Marlo says, “You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way”? That is basically The Mule, a movie that wants to be an insightful glimpse into the uncomfortably similar worlds of cartel violence and the federal agents chasing them but really ends up being an excuse for an old white guy to say increasingly stupid shit and sleep with increasingly younger women.
As you may already know, The Mule did not screen for a vast majority of film critics around the country, and the movie did not offer Thursday night showings, so Warner Bros. really locked down how much information about this movie got out before its opening weekend. And although I’m not sure most Clint Eastwood fans care at this point what liberal elites like myself think of the one-time great American actor’s directorial efforts, I suppose there must have been some trepidation regarding how The Mule would be received. Rightfully so! Because this movie is bad!
Yes, its greatest flaws are its expectedly racist and sexist undertones, but also, holy shit, The Mule is fucking boring. The story starts in 2005, when Earl Stone (Eastwood) is a champion horticulturist, a specialist in daylily flowers, who grumbles about the Internet and drinks a little too much and ignores his wife, daughter, and granddaughter. He’s too busy driving around the country to various exhibitions, conventions, and competitions, and although he has a thriving farm, he’a also the kind of asshole who misses his daughter’s wedding. Cool!
Fast-forward 12 years later, when his farm is in foreclosure, the women in his life are gone, and Earl is basically a mess. He makes a scene at his granddaughter’s (Taissa Farmiga) pre-wedding party and catches the eye of young Rico (Victor Rasuk), who in the space of approximately 15 seconds thinks to himself, “Oh shit, maybe this old grump will want to be a drug mule!”
And yes, Earl does want to be a drug mule, or at least, he doesn’t mind driving across state lines with cargo he can’t look at in his trunk, given to him by tattooed Mexican men with guns in a tire garage with blacked-out windows, with burner phones that he has to destroy after the run is done. The script by Nick Schenk, based on the New York Times story “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule” by Sam Dolnick, suggests that Earl at first had no idea what he was transporting. He was just driving, singing along to Frank Sinatra, and receiving increasingly larger envelopes full of cash. What could be wrong with that?
That’s about the first half of The Mule: Earl driving. He does one run and says he’s done, then he does another, and of course he’s a great person because he uses the money to help pay for his granddaughter’s wedding, and to pay for his VFW outpost to get rebuilt after a kitchen fire, and yes, he buys himself a new truck and a gaudy gold bracelet but he’s earned it, right? And he’s just so ridiculous and wacky that these cartel members can’t help but befriend him. They nickname him Tata, they say he’s “pimpin,’” they teach him how to text, they tell him about their kids and their nieces and their nephews and their wives, and blah blah blah look at this great old white man being nice to these gangsters! How kind of him!
This is a recurring theme throughout The Mule, that while Earl may say racist and sexist things, he’s really just a nice old man that we have to accept as a product of another time, when people weren’t looking at their phones constantly and ignoring each other. (Earl complains about cellphones no fewer than four times, and if I counted all of his inarticulate mumbling about the Internet, I would have run out of space in my notepad.) He may be offensive, but he’s civil, and we should respect that. Earl only calls a group of lesbians “dykes” because that’s how they self-identified, and although he calls a young black family a group of “Negroes,” he does help them change a flat tire (because the father in the family didn’t know how, a thinly veiled racist moment), and he’s so nice to the young Mexican escorts who the cartel leader instructs to have a threesome with him. Someone should call his cardiologist, he jokes as they climb onto his body. Things are getting wild!
Do you want to know more? OK, let’s keep going, and let’s get into SPOILERS, SO IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW HOW THE MULE ENDS, STOP READING.
So Earl is killing it as the cartel’s most prolific mule, but things take a turn when the cartel leader, Laton (Andy Garcia, going in a smarmy direction after all that charm in Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!), is murdered by his second in command (Clifton Collins Jr., for whom I always want more). The new head of the cartel doesn’t like how Earl takes breaks and gets food and sleeps with prostitutes during runs (the old man really has a thing for threesomes), and so he about loses his damn mind when Earl disappears for a week after learning that his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) is dying of cancer.
Earl sits bedside with Mary, and he’s there in the moment when she dies, when she for some damn reason claims that Earl was the love of her life even though he was clearly the most negligent motherfucker around. This one-week return into their lives encourages Earl’s daughter who hadn’t spoken to him in 12 years to forgive him, and his granddaughter, who always advocated for him for some damn reason is pleased that her grandfather is in her life again, but wait! Oh no! Turns out that Grandpa was a drug mule all along, and he’s swept up in a bust by ambitious DEA Agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper, continuing to work with Eastwood, for some damn reason), who Earl had actually met at a motel and who he had previously lectured about not working too hard. (Sample dialogue: “You gotta think about her, women love that shit,” Earl says to Colin when the younger man realizes he missed his anniversary with his wife.) Because like, Colin could end up being Earl. Because of how much he prioritizes job over family. Did you get that? Was that storytelling not blatant enough for you?
But Earl won’t lie about who he is. Although Colin’s sting doesn’t seem to have implicated any of the actual cartel leaders or members, Earl ends up on trial, and like a man, he won’t even let his lady lawyer defend him. He proudly pleads guilty, and he accepts his sentence like a man, and he hugs his crying daughter and granddaughter, who promise to visit him, like a man, and then he ends up behind bars, where he starts gardening again, happily planting flowers outside the penitentiary, like a man. I thought that it looked like Earl had a prison tattoo of a blooming flower on the inside of his wrist when you see him handling a bunch of blooms, but I could be wrong, because at that point I was so bored I was fighting off sleep. Not sorry!
The Mule is unrelentingly tedious. There is no believable drama here, no narrative forward motion. The movie sets its rhythm quickly — Earl signs up for a run, Earl drives, Earl gets a check-in from the cartel, the DEA gets info from their mole (Eugene Cordero/Pillboi from The Good Place, whom they manipulate into cooperation by threatening prison rape), rewind and repeat — and then doesn’t deviate from it for the next two hours. The only scene that feels relevant to our current cultural moment is when Cooper’s Colin and his partner, Agent Trevino (Michael Peña), are trying to track down the mule and are randomly pulling over black pickup trucks. They pass two young white guys in a truck and don’t pull it over because duh, they’re white. They pass one tan, bearded man wearing a cowboy hat in a truck, decide to pull it over, and are subjected to his anxious babbling about being terrified of being shot by police. Colin and Trevino are both bemused by this, and they expect the man to speak Spanish, and he doesn’t, and they expect the man to have drugs in his car, and he doesn’t, and eventually they apologize and drive away. That man’s fear of being shot by police was the most real thing The Mule offered, and yet Eastwood’s directing and Schenk’s screenplay almost try to play it for laughs.
It is a bizarre choice in a movie that isn’t as wall-to-wall offensive as Peppermint or Death Wish but is as resolute in its “Our main guy is a good guy” plot as Life Itself, another film that thought its male protagonist could do no wrong. The Mule is just as misguided as those films, and yet somehow even more boring.