Jacob Richardson | 25/01/2018
Somewhat slow, but tinged with bouts of tension, laughter, pity and reflection, The Mule is a moving and affecting character study that doesn’t plague itself with contrivances like tension.
Abhorred by most of his family, absentee father and grandfather Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) despairs when he can’t give his granddaughter the wedding she deserves. With his house on the brink of foreclosure, Earl (a 90-year old horticulturist and Korean War veteran) is approached to begin running cocaine through Illinois for a Mexican drug cartel. While he is enticed by the money, and a return to the days of his youth, what he doesn’t realise is that FBI agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) is edging ever closer.
Clint Eastwood takes the reins not only as lead actor, but also as director in this slow but assured portrait of a man grappling with a life of mistakes and a forgotten youth. As Earl, he is at once old, frail and ditsy, but he is also funny, upbeat and with a courageous, take-no-shit attitude. His interactions with the Cartel members take on an almost odd-couple dynamic; them used to their runners being meek, submissive types and Early used to treating Hispanics with racism and disdain.
Cooper brings an intriguing take to his reluctantly-in-Chicago FBI agent. He is both weary and eager, both emotions stemming from his presence in the windy city. He also showcases a budding friendship with Earl, as they reminisce on the importance of family and the cruelty of misspent time.
The film is at its best when the two of them are on screen together, closely followed by the moments of levity and humor strewn throughout the plot. Eastwood wrings humor from the strangest places; from a pulled pork sandwich to a pumping party in Cartel-land south of the border. The variation means that when those funny moments hit, they hit hard, and you’ll find yourself laughing along easily and naturally.
The problem is that they are too often interspersed with unending tedium. This is an introspective piece on Earl’s psyche as much as it is anything else, and while Eastwood does a good job of showing his character’s arc, as a director he takes too much time to do so. That is coupled with a series of supporting performances that are decidedly subpar (that’s only in relation to Earl’s family though - Michael Pena and Andy Garcia are both a heap of fun in this). They immediately draw you out of the film, and have you longing for Earl to get out on the road again. For a film that is about the importance of family and why Earl shouldn’t have spent his best years driving the country, it makes this family so reprehensible and so poorly acted as to almost negate its central premise.
There’s enough here to get excited about, and you’ll laugh and love Earl more than expected.