Clint Eastwood has had such a long and storied Hollywood career that everything about him and his late directorial efforts are tied up in what used to be. What I mean is that I have a hard time believing that most of these films would have the audience or the attention if almost anyone else had made them. They’re often shoddily made and regressive in their views of modern America, but since they have the Eastwood name attached, they’re given a sense of grandeur that they don’t fully deserve on their own. I suppose the argument is that he’s earned this stature over the decades, but as someone who’s never considered himself an Eastwood fan (I enjoyed watching those orangutan movies they’d show on TV when I was a kid), I’m always left wondering what I’m missing in his films. His latest, The Mule, is no different.
Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a 90-year-old horticulturist who gets duped into being a drug mule for a scary cartel, mostly because he’s too cold to ask questions about what he’s hauling around. After finally digging around in the duffel bags they have him carry around, Earl discovers the truth of his misdeeds and the plot sets itself in motion. The problem with this setup is that it’s impossible to tell how Earl feels about all of this. He’s surprisingly blase about carrying all of this cocaine around, but it’s never stated why. Greed? Senility? Earl’s character is far too sketched in, simply relying on Eastwood’s natural grumpiness to fill in the blanks, leaving behind zero room for nuance.
It’s these gray areas that the film desperately needs. There’s nothing to really chew on besides the usual Eastwoodian concerns over family and regret. Everyone and everything in the movie feels undercooked, while a serious look at the complicated nature of the drug trade and Earl’s place in it would be welcome. But a serious moral ambiguity rarely makes it into Eastwood’s films, meaning we’d miss out on the good cops and the bad, scary drug dealers and the casual racism that peppers the movie.
The underdeveloped nature of The Mule is also a symptom of Eastwood’s “workmanlike” style of filmmaking, a word that’s often used to note a specifically dull and unenergetic style of movie. The whole thing feels slapped together, while Eastwood’s usually gruff and straightforward demeanor make for a languid, humorless movie. There’s nothing here that’s really entertaining and there’s nothing here to really latch onto intellectually, so it’s difficult to look at The Mule as anything more than a perfectly OK digression. It’s certainly not art. Rated R for language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande.