Clint Eastwood always looks like he’s wearing shoes two sizes two small nowadays. In The Mule he casts himself as a ninety year old failed horticulturalist who — out of a misplaced sense of pride — instead of turning to the family he abandoned years before, starts running drugs in order to make a living. His perpetual irascibility serves him well, he seems like a man that it just ain’t worth the time to fuck with.
The film rolls out with the relaxed focus of Eastwood’s latest efforts. Yet, this time there’s not even an air crash recreation or on rails gun fight. The man luxuriates in the peaceful open spaces of central America, turning the long and repeated driving sequences into a meditation on the worth of labour. Here is a man who lost the opportunity to do the thing he loved because capitalist society started to outpace him. Here is a man who neglected all his other obligations in order to stay afloat in the economy.
After it abandons him, suddenly he finds himself doing the easiest work of his life while being richly rewarded. Sure, his bosses are dicks, but whose ain’t? At least some of the co-workers are pretty decent. I’m sure this is a generous depiction of a cartel, our hero is kept far enough on the outside that the messiness never quite stains him. While others do whatever dirty work there is to be done the man just drives. Early on he actually takes a look in one of the bags he’s hauling and is quite shocked to find it full of cocaine. How quaint.
His drop off point is a nondescript hotel in Chicago where Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña play two DEA agents on the case. It’s surprising somewhat how little Eastwood’s now somewhat notorious politics play into the representation. The cops are neither superheroes nor tied up in an impenetrable web of bureaucracy (again, see his last two films for examples) they’re just trying their best. Everyone is.
Maybe returning the man before the lens for the first time in six years casts a spell over things. He approaches the role honestly. He is not precious of his appearance, nor his stardom. Sure, he’ll insert younger women into the lead’s life — this is a film in which he has two separate threesomes — but in those scenes you just kinda pity the man. He’s always being observed, and we’re always watching along with them. If it weren’t for the lascivious gaze of the camera at a cartel pool party; one may consider this to be almost entirely chaste.
It’s what we want to see from the man right now. If we can, a simplified view of a former superstar, chaste and if necessary — chastened. Dianne Weist plays the ex who he is desperately trying to get back in with. There are few better at delivering a stern dressing down, and she lets the man have it. Poor husband, poor father, all round dickhead. I am reminded of the recent attempts at a Mel Gibson rehabilitation. This feels like the more honest attempt; at least the actor here has some measure of authorship, at least the plot involves a reckoning with his past flaws.
Eastwood has certainly not done anything so heinous, just has had a record of saying some real dumb political things. You can see the tension in how he directs police racially profiling and stopping an innocent man. The actor’s fear is real, the cops are credibly threatening, but it’s not a scary scene. There’s no chance of anything really going on. We should be laughing at it, and it doesn’t feel right.
Neither does the way that he calls two folks he stops to help at the roadside ‘negros’ or the way he’ll casually throw slurs at his coworkers. He’ll linger on their shocked reactions, their inability to respond. The joke is on them, he’s the one with all the power in these situations. He’s the one with power in almost every situation.
Is it a critique of masculinity that the man who turns his back on men screaming at him, weapons drawn, cannot cope around women with agency? What does it say then that he will ultimately find forgiveness without putting in any of the actual work?
I’m not sure, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. Eastwood is old and probably unchanging, and as far as this is concerned, a minor enough work to be easily dismissed. Perhaps the largest takeaway is that even when trying to be as inoffensive as possible he still manages to be. Which ain’t great, it’s a sap on the film’s very ready charms.
If it were just all that scene of him on the highway singing along to Dean Martin I’d probably rate it better.
The Mule is currently screening in UK cinemas