By James Slaymaker.
Like many late-period Eastwood films, The Mule is a revisionist genre piece with a pronounced self-reflexive streak. It only takes a glimpse at the poster to deduce that the figure of Eastwood – as a cinematic persona, as an actor, as an ailing body – will be at the forefront of the film: Clint’s name is written in large type over an image of his face in profile, the lines on his cheeks fading into a desolate, barren Western landscape. It’s an image that instantly brings to mind the iconography of Eastwood’s classic characters while also acknowledging the actor/auteur’s naturally deteriorating physical health as he nears his 90th year. This elegiac tone is even more prominent in the trailer, which features Eastwood declaring, “this is the last one. So, help me God. This is the last one.” Shortly afterwards, an image of a frazzled Eastwood turning slowly, painfully, towards the camera, is punctuated by a title card which reads: “Nobody runs forever.”
Eastwood has, of course, collapsed the boundaries between actor/protagonist/cinematic icon in his features numerous times before – and often to stunning effect. The most successful of these experiments, in this writer’s opinion, remains 2009’s Gran Torino. In that film, Eastwood plays Walt, a Korean War vet and die-hard Republican who acts as a weary witness to all of America’s colonial wrong-doings. Horrifically racist, politically regressive, and intensely myopic, Walt functions as a symbol of the imperialistic violence U.S. society was built on as well as the toxic attitudes which continue to halt social progress. On an extra-textual level, Walt is also Eastwood – or, rather, a reflection of the toxic conservative attitudes that have been perpetuated by his characters in the past and mobilized to support fascist values. The most egregious example of this is arguably Harry Callahan, a fantasy of right-wing vigilantism railing against the scant remains of the 60s counterculture, defending the threatened status of white masculine power through brute force. Gran Torino takes a similar character but removes him from the heroic structure which lionized his reactionary worldview and, instead, positions him as a feeble relic who must be expelled to pave the way for positive change in the future. The narrative trajectory of Gran Torino tracks Walt’s gradual realization of his own failures accompanied by his acceptance that he is beyond redemption. The film’s final sequence is one of the finest moments in Eastwood’s oeuvre: seemingly pushed to the limit, Walt eschews vigilante violence and instead sacrifices himself in the hopes of restoring social harmony. As he does so, he mimes the act of shooting a pistol with his thumb and forefinger which self-consciously subverts the iconic image from the Dirty Harry poster.
Gran Torino thus forces the viewer to face the horrors of our collective past to better understand the current socio-political moment – and point to how we may avoid repeating the mistakes of history. Upon its release, it seemed like the perfect conclusion to Eastwood’s acting career and, understandably, he spent the next decade exclusively behind the camera. So when Eastwood was announced to be playing the protagonist of The Mule, a true-story based on a 90-year-old man’s stint as a drug trafficker tied to a Mexican cartel, I was admittedly skeptical. The result, I’m afraid to say, is deeply underwhelming, especially considering that the film touches on so many subjects Eastwood has dissected with such power in the past: class, race, fatherhood, Western iconography. Lacking the tight formal precision and thematic focus of films like Sully, American Sniper, The 15:17 to Paris and J Edgar, The Mule registers as a meandering grab-bag of ideas which never quite cohere into a unified whole.
This is not to suggest, however, that The Mule is without merit. The issues it raises are certainly engaging (though the film never develops any thematic through-line as thoroughly as it needs to) and its best sequences are powerful enough to rival anything that came out of Hollywood in the past year. The Eastwood avatar in The Mule is Earl Stone, a horticulturalist and (again) Korean War vet who takes more pride in his professional life than his close relationships. We first see Walt as he attends a local horticultural convention, sauntering through the chintzy hotel lobby while being lavished with praise from upstanding members of the local community. He wins the gold prize at the ceremony which follows, to the delight of the crowd, and promptly makes his way to the bar to celebrate with his veteran buddies. On the sound of applause, Eastwood cuts to a very different scene: the hotel room of Earl’s daughter Iris, who, already in her wedding dress, is waiting hopelessly for her father to arrive to take her down the aisle. Unable to contact Earl, Iris’ mother Mary prepares her for disappointment: “You have to face facts. Your father has always chose work over family. He missed your baptism, your confirmation, your graduation. Countless birthdays, not to mention most of our anniversaries.” In addition to establishing Earl’s inadequacy as a supportive paterfamilias, this sequence also hints at his anxiety regarding the infiltration of minorities into his formerly gentrified white neighbourhood. Earl playfully jabs his Hispanic employees by referring to their vehicle as a “taco wagon” and joking about their impending deportation. Although Earl frames these comments as harmless horseplay, Eastwood’s camera lingers on the pained expressions of Earl’s workers, a reminder that jokes such as these are a lot less easy to swallow for those who remain victims of vast systematic oppression. A little later, Earl’s drinking session with a group of friends is ruined when he spots a young, newly married Asian couple getting embracing on the side-lines of the otherwise exclusively Caucasian bar, prompting him to eye them with suspicion.
The Mule is at its strongest when attacking the perseverance of social inequality in neo-liberal American society. Earl’s dalliance in the drug trade is not driven by financial necessity; although he makes use of his monetary spoils, Earl lives comfortably and has a healthy support system; there is no indication that he would be unable to make money through a more legitimate line of work. Unlike his partners in the explicitly racially-coded criminal underworld, Earl was not driven to this criminal lifestyle by desperation or systematic oppression; instead, he finds pure enjoyment in transgressing the codes of the law. Fully aware that his whiteness acts like a shield to protect him from serious repercussions, Earl treats his drug-running missions as road trips, taking breaks to take in the sights, singing along to showtunes, visiting roadside diners, and dallying with hookers in cheap motels. These scenes are deliberately stripped of tension; Earl expresses little anxiety about getting stopped by the cops, and, on the few occasions when he is pulled over, he handles the problem quickly and quietly. Essentially, Earl is able to temporarily get a thrill from the freedom of transgressive behaviour while feeling that he is fundamentally protected from danger. The racial experiential divide is made explicit during a scene set at a diner, wherein Earl treats two of his Latino dealers to a pulled pork sandwich he promises to be “the best in the world.” The dealers are visibly threatened by the all-white clientele, clearly associating the space with centuries of white supremacist violence and ingrained racism. Earl, hearing their fears, calmly dismisses them, laughingly describing the pair as “two beaners in a bowlful of crackers.” Earl then tells them that they need to calm down and enjoy the moment more, to which they gravely respond that maybe he enjoys the moment too much. It’s a moment which recognizes that the ease of the lifestyle Earl enjoys is built on a history of imperialistic oppression, and that such comfort breeds a flippant, easy-going attitude towards social inequality that prohibits necessary social reform. To hammer home this point, these men are stopped by the police as they are exiting the restaurant, but are quickly excused when Eastwood explains that they are travelling as his guests.
This critique of racial inequality is even more scathing in the scenes which track the efforts of the D.E.A. to take down the cartel. Bradley Cooper’s Colin Bates is a man who has internalized the racial prejudices of an older generation and uses this paranoia to rationalize an extreme militarization of his professional work. When Bates looks at a packed Mexican restaurant through binoculars from his cop car and jokes, “it looks like the Star Wars cantina in there,” it’s a scary indication of the de-humanization of marginal cultures by law enforcement officials which allows them to continue racially-charged violence without feeling moral repercussions. In the film’s most powerful scene, an innocent Latino man is pulled over by the cops at gunpoint and frisked while his car is searched. The quivering man pleads to be treated with more compassion, and repeatedly explains that “statistically, this is the most dangerous five minutes of my life.” The sequence plays out in real-time, and the tension becomes almost unbearable. The scene never explodes into explicit violence, but the damage done to the civilian is clear. It’s a remarkably potent indictment of the sort of normalized brutality that is all-too-common in modern policing. During a climactic meeting at a waffle house, Bates and Earl discuss professional matters over a drink at a roadside waffle house – neither one is aware that they are on opposite sides of the law – and it serves as a fascinating study of the cyclical, inherited nature of masculine violence as it is passed on through the generations. The notion of Bates as a younger mirror image of Earl is a potentially fascinating one, and one wishes that The Mule had devoted more time to exploring this dualism.
Earl, then, is plagued by many of the same prejudices as Gran Torino’s Walt, though he is presented as being a far more placid and benign character. And this is the central flaw of The Mule – it is too eager to paint Earl in a sympathetic light to launch the vigorous investigation into the social ills of contemporary Republicanism, which its subject demands. Earl is portrayed as being a somewhat outdated but ultimately open-minded guy whose plain-speaking disdain of political correctness is a harmless quirk. During one of the strange tangents which take up an alarming percentage of The Mule’s running time, Earl offers to change the tire of a black couple stranded by the side of the road. They make some polite chit-chat, and Earl jovially mentions that he “is always eager to help a negro couple.” To Eastwood’s credit, the camera acknowledges the visible discomfort of the couple as they correct his terminology, but, in this case, the scene fails to tie Earl’s casual, unintentionally offensive terminology to wider social injustices – he is simply a well-intentioned old man who is slightly out-of-touch with the times. Unlike Walt, Earl’s repellent behaviour is too often excused as the actions of a naively inappropriate codger, and he is never sufficiently taken to task for these attitudes; there is a genuine undercurrent of menace and potential violence underlying every one of Walt’s actions, while Earl is merely innocently misguided. This tension – between critiquing Earl’s white privilege within a landscape rife with racial profiling and celebrating Earl as a plainspoken, salt-of-the-earth hero – is an uneasy one, and thoroughly undermines the larger socio-political issues the film touches upon.
Furthermore, Eastwood codifies the “dangerous” world of the minorities in broad, stereotypical terms. The land near the border belongs to the cartel, and The Mule charges every non-white space with a sense of palpable menace. The most extreme example of this is the Cartel head’s garish McMansion, a hotbed of hedonism where de-humanized young women dance in bikinis around a pool for their tattooed, gun-toting bosses. These scenes – in which Earl is the only white visitor – are fundamentally idiotic, especially considering the careful production design of the corny roadside attractions Earl visits on his trips, steeped in the corny bric-a-brac of old-school Americana; while the latter feels genuine and lived-in, the former feels like a superficial simulacrum informed by broad racist clichés. And when Earl enters these “dangerous” spaces, the audience is invited to share in his sense of unease. The Mule is premised on a reductive image of Latino Americans being threatening, sex-hungry thugs ready to explode into gang violence at the drop of a hat. This makes for a strange contradiction: the film is primarily interested in exploring the ways in which white people project their anxieties onto racial minorities, yet it is only likely to further perpetuate antiquated cultural stereotypes.
What makes The Mule such a disappointment is that, on a conceptual level, it falls firmly in line with the ambitions of Eastwood’s fascinating late-period project. It is simultaneously a piece of self-critique, a vision of social pathology and work of subversive neo-classicism, attempting to dissect the sexism, national exceptionalism, and white supremacy at the core of contemporary conservative ideology – as well as how these ideas are spread through the multifaceted forms of popular entertainment. Yet it crucially lacks the crystalline focus, political passion, and intense moral purpose that drive Eastwood’s greatest films. Like Gran Torino, The Mule ends on a moment of self-sacrifice, but this time, it doesn’t carry the same emotional or symbolic weight. It is easy to imagine Walt’s Christ-like collapse in a barrage of bullets as he dies to cleanse the nation of the sins of his generation going down in history as one of the most potent images of 21st century American cinema – it feels like an inevitable climax, within the diegetic narrative as well as in the wider context of Eastwood’s career. The ending of The Mule, on the other hand, is frustratingly anti-climactic – Spoiler alert! – Earl’s split-second decision, in the courtroom, to confess to his wrong-doings rather than place the blame on another party simply registers as yet another sign of his character’s good nature.
James Slaymaker is a journalist and filmmaker. His articles have been published in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, MUBI Notebook, Little White Lies, McSweeney’s, Kinoscope, Film Comment, and others. His first book Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann is forthcoming with Telos Publishing. His films have been featured on Fandor, MUBI, and The Film Stage, as well as screening at the London DIY Film Festival, the Concrete Dream Film Festival, the InShort Film Festival and The Straight Jacket Film Festival. He is currently a doctoral student at The University of Southampton, where his research focuses on the late work of Jean-Luc Godard, post-cinema, and collective memory.