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Non-Review Review: The Mule

The Mule is an endearingly and charmingly bizarre piece of work, one which plays to both the best and worst impulses of its leading man and director.

A revealing moment comes very early in The Mule, when the protagonist is making his way through a horticultural convention. Pausing at a table where a salesman is explaining that customers can now order their flowers online, Earl pauses and sighs. “The internet,” he mutters to both himself and the audience. “Who needs that?” It’s a moment that serves as something of a litmus test, in which the audience find themselves asking how much that statement illuminates Earl’s perspective or the film’s central arguments.

Who needs Netflix money anyway?

Earl is very much an archetypal Clint Eastwood protagonist. He is crotchety, casually racist, well-intentioned and irresistibly charming. These elements are often uncomfortable when played off one another, with films like Gran Torino playing with the tension between the film’s perspective and the outdated views of its incredibly engaging protagonist. Eastwood is everybody irascible elderly relative, to the point that it’s almost impossible not to like him. Particularly in his later roles, Eastwood rarely plays characters who are actively malicious. They are just insensitive and blunt.

Of course, Earl is also a decidedly ambiguous figure. This is part of what defines him as an archetypal Clint Eastwood protagonist. Eastwood’s screen persona is the very definition of a certain sort of masculinity; confident, assured, assertive, canny. However, Eastwood’s screen persona is also built around deconstructing certain old-fashioned notions of masculinity, picking at the role that violence plays in defining a masculine identity or exploring the emotional consequences of rigid professionalism and stiff stoicism.

Case foreclosed.

Earl is incredibly disarming, and almost impossible not to like, a fact that The Mule repeatedly and consciously acknowledges. From Drug Enforcement Administration agents to cartel enforcers, Earl has the capacity to smooth-talk absolutely anyone. Attending his granddaughter’s wedding, his ex-wife very pointedly has to fight off the urge to succumb to Earl’s charm offensive. The Mule is quite conscious that Earl’s wit and charisma are not the entirety of who he is, and how they belie other less flattering aspects of his personality.

The Mule is a film that is stuck in a constant push-and-pull with its leading man, which results in an uneven but compelling film. The Mule never seems certain what to make of its title character, never sure how seriously it takes him. The result is to leave a lot of space for the audience to navigate their own reaction to the film’s cocaine-carted grandfather.

Not beaten yet.

The most obvious antecedent of The Mule is perhaps Breaking Bad. After all, the premises are remarkably similar. A failure of a man stumbles into work with a drug cartel, demonstrating an impressive aptitude for illegal activity. The man is drawn to such a life by the promise of money and the lure of masculinity, allowing himself to be blinded to the consequences of his actions. At the same time, he is hunted by a Drug Enforcement Agent often comically oblivious to the evasive criminal that he is chasing.

At the centre of both stories is the idea of modern masculinity, of what makes a man. The Mule is much gentler than Breaking Bad, much less interested in articulating the particulars of Earl’s moral failings. Breaking Bad had five full seasons in which to tear apart the myth of Walter White, while The Mule opts for a much more intimate story. Earl is less directly involved in the drug trade, remaining (admittedly willfully) oblivious to what he is driving around for far too long, but he is also less explicitly violent.

However, The Mule is absolutely fascinated with the question of how Earl defines his masculinity. It is revealed early in the film that Earl has already left a trail of collateral damage in his wake. The opening scenes reveal that Earl was too busy getting drunk to attend his own daughter’s wedding, leading to a deep rift between them. Years later, Earl is unwelcome at his own granddaughter’s wedding. He argues that his absences were necessary, that he spent “sixty hours a week on the road” to provide for his family, which led to these schisms.

The Mule is not a subtle film. Inevitably, the film has Earl repeating that mistake. The central plot of the film, after all, consists of Earl becoming a driver in order to support his family and friends, to play the performative role of the successful man. It doesn’t really matter that Earl is driving increasingly high volumes of cocaine into Chicago. All that matters is that this is another example of Earl choosing to take a job that physically and emotionally distances himself from his family. The cocaine just literalises the damage and destruction that Earl’s time on the road is causing for his family.

Indeed, the emotional climax of the film actually has remarkably little to do with the drama of law enforcement and the cartel; the film builds to something resembling a conclusion on both points, but these are presented as matter-of-fact details. Instead, the emotional climax of the film hinges on the idea of Earl having to decide between doing his job and supporting his family. Similarly, his journey can only (figuratively) be complete when he takes responsibility for his failures in both familial and legal terms.

Eastwood has long played with the question of what exactly defines a man, and the way in which that is measured against social expectations of masculinity. Earl is just the latest example in this trend, a man who has defined his masculinity in terms of performative generosity. In an early scene, Earl is shown buying drinks for an entire bar. Later on, he uses his money to host an open bar at his granddaughter’s wedding. When he donates money to keep his local veterans’ hall open, he is celebrated at a gigantic party thrown in his honour. Earl wants to be seen as the man.

The Mule gets interesting in its portrayal of Earl. This is the first time that Eastwood has directed himself since Gran Torino. This is his first major role in front of the camera in about seven years. As a director, Eastwood makes a point to emphasise Earl’s vulnerability and his fragility. There is very little of the steel that defined Eastwood’s iconic characters to be found in The Mule. Compared to Walt in Gran Torino, Earl seems like a pushover. “You know, you’d make a good Jimmy Stewart,” a cop observes. It’s hard to imagine a compliment further from Eastwood’s screen persona.

This is obvious in how Eastwood plays Earl, but also in how he frames Earl. The film repeatedly and consciously draws attention to Earl’s awkward shuffle, the manner in which Earl has difficulty even walking straight. There are a number of shots of Earl’s shuffling feet at various points over the course of the film, and that shuffle even becomes a minor plot point late in the film when it is revealed as one of Earl’s identifying traits. Beyond that, Earl seems sunken and small compared to Eastwood’s other characters. His voice is still gravel, but slightly smoothed and softened.

However, The Mule then makes a conscious choice to play up Earl’s heightened masculinity once his courier service takes off. The Mule is a film that deals in excess, creating a strange tonally mismash at points. There is something almost comical in the shots of Earl driving around inside his new expensive pick-up. As Pete Davison and John Mulaney have both pointed out, this is a movie in which Clint Eastwood directs Clint Eastwood in not-one-but-two separate threesomes. If the whole thing wasn’t so absurd, it would seem like a sleazy empowerment fantasy.

This is the challenge with The Mule, the moments in which the film seems to swing on a dime between suffocating earnestness and knowing self-awareness. Eastwood is directing The Mule with a slight curl at the corner of his mouth, and it’s often hard to tell whether he’s grinning playfully or smirking indulgently. The Mule is a film that often dips into seemingly earnest life lessons presented by the world’s worst husband, father and grandfather. The push and pull within the film is always in trying to assess how aware the film is of this irony.

This tension is evident early on, with Earl’s wry aside about the uselessness of the internet. It is a stock grumpy “old man shakes fist at (the) cloud” moment. However, the film very quickly transitions to a revelation that Earl’s beloved horticultural business inevitably went bankrupt. Did Earl fail to keep up with times? Might his business have survived if he had managed to figure out who exactly needed the internet? A lot is left up to the audience to interpret as they see fit.

There are a number of scenes in the film in which Earl decides to offer profound life advice to the people around him, like some sort of drug trafficking Yoda. At various points in the film, Earl offers life-enriching insights to both the heir apparent to a major cartel and the law enforcement official who is trying to track him down. These scenes play almost surreal in the heightened context of a drug cartel drama, feeling like scenes that might play better in a more sickly sweet familial drama.

This bizarre juxtaposition is often disorienting. At one point, Earl returns from his sexual escapades to (seemingly honestly and earnestly) warn his cartel minder to “find something you love and do it” rather than remaining in the drug trade for the foreseeable future. At another point, Earl narrowly evades capture by law enforcement only to share morning coffee with a senior agent whom he reminds never to forget about his marriage anniversary. “Women care about that sh!t,” Earl advises the young man at the coffee counter, with a completely straight face.

This earnestness feels almost like wry and knowing black comedy, Earl constructing a grotesque warped parody of the family life that he missed out on by casting the closest people to hand in the role of his surrogate sons. Earl’s impulses as an elderly curmudgeon come to a head in a series of very obvious jokes about the younger generation’s perceived over-reliance on mobile phones. At one point, Earl comes across a muscle-bound man slamming one fist into a motel ice machine. “You’d have more luck if you put the phone away,” Earl offers.

There is something almost stereotypically old-fashioned and grumpy about these sorts of jokes, a sense of an old man grumbling about how much time his younger relatives spend staring at their phones. However, The Mule plays these beats so heavily and to such a heightened degree that they don’t feel like a dismissive and reactionary screed. The joke almost seems to be on Earl, who seems genuinely confused by how exactly phones work. (“That’s a perfectly good phone,” he complains when his handler throws away the burner mobile.)

There are a number of points within The Mule where is is difficult to tell on whom the joke is intended. This is perhaps most obvious in the film’s racial politics, which might most charitably be described as glib. The Mule is very pointedly (and very aggressively) aware of the context in which it exists, that times have changed and that social mores have moved on. The Mule is perhaps slightly more sensitive on issues of race than Gran Torino, but still leaves a lot of room.

This is most obvious with when Earl pulls over in the middle of one of his drug runs to help an African American family at the side of the road. He absent-mindedly refers to them as “Negroes.” They awkwardly, but firmly correct him, “Actually, we prefer black people. Or just people.” It’s a very strange and very weird scene, one familiar to anybody who has tried to navigate these sorts of social boundaries with an elderly relative. It is hard to tell whether the joke is intended on the family trying to explain this to Earl, or simply to showcase how out-of-touch Earl is.

Similarly, an extended sequence involves law enforcement stopping a driver of Mexican descent. The driver panics. “These are the most dangerous five minutes of my life,” he repeats, amid assurances that he is cooperating and that he is no threat. (Noticeably, an African American agent wanders out of shot early in the discussion.) The sequence is hard to read, whether Eastwood is explicitly acknowledging a reality of modern driving for minorities in America by pushing it to an extreme outside its usual context, or whether the joke is decidedly more mean-spirited.

Similarly, as with Gran Torino, the film is at best disinterested in Earl’s casual racism. At one point, inviting two cartel members out for “the best pulled pork sandwich in the midwest”, which he later corrects to “the world”, Earl helpfully explains that all the patrons of the restaurant are looking at them because they are “two [Mexicans] in a cracker basket.” While covering for a cartel member who screwed up and gave him information that he shouldn’t have, Earl protects his informant  by falling back on “they all look the same to me.”

There is a self-awareness to all of this, which reflects that even Clint Eastwood is cognisant of how times are changing. The tension within The Mule lies on the extent to which the audience is willing to accept that the joke might be on Earl. It’s frequently difficult to tell, given how straight several of these beats are played. Even if Earl is being positioned as the butt of these jokes, there’s also a smugness to the beats that feels occasionally off-putting, as if the film knows that it is skirting the line just enough.

And yet, The Mule works. There’s something very effective in the film’s fish-out-of-water sensibility, in the way in which it commits so studiously to the incongruity of Earl as the most successful drug-runner in the United States. There is something charming in the strange bond that Earl forges with the low-level cartel members who work with him on an almost daily basis, who teach him how to text (“I’ll be texting my brains out,” he sighs) and who seem genuinely excited to declare “that’s my Earl!” when the character delivers one of his signature one-liners.

Of course, this dynamic also folds back into the weirdly specific reactionary vibes that infuse The Mule. The film’s attitude towards drug cartels is rather surreal. The film seems genuinely sympathetic to these large monstrous organisations in its first half, when operations are overseen by the aged Don Laton. Laton respects Earl, and appreciates his unique style; he understands that the elderly man cannot be rushed. More than that, Laton seems to care about his underlings. After a heated argument, Laton takes the time to earnestly ask, “How are things with you?”

In the world of The Mule, things only seem to go wrong when Laton is replaced by a younger and hungrier breed of drug lord. The Mule never dwells on it too heavily, but there’s a sense that the film’s conservatism applies as much to the internal politics of drug cartels as it does to the social conventions of mobile phone usage; some things were just better in the old days. It’s a very strange sentiment, and it’s wisely never foregrounded, but it is always lurking at the edge of the frame adding to the weird tone of the film is a whole.

More than that, the plot is simple enough to allow for a wide variety of almost stream-of-consciousness diversions that can inevitably be folded back into the narrative. In this respect, an extended subplot focusing on Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena as two drug enforcement agents works much better than it should; the familiar beats and rhythms of an investigative plot line provide a structure on the narrative that allows Earl’s story to meander and wander while still seeming to build towards something.

Like its lead actor, there is an endearing charm to The Mule, often captured in small scenes of Clint Eastwood singing along to Ain’t That a Kick in the Head while driving across the country, sinister cartel figures eavesdropping on his Dean Martin impersonation. The tone is weird, the meaning often difficult to discern, but there’s a surprising amount of joy to be found in it, as long as one is willing to be carried along.

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