The first line uttered in Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule” is from Earl Stone (Eastwood), who greets one of the workers on his daylily farm: “Hey Jose, what’s with the taco wagon? It’s like you were born to be deported.”
Then Jose and Earl laugh, which is how all of Earl’s many wildly racist remarks are treated in “The Mule.” It’s as if they’re completely harmless, because Earl’s just a curmudgeonly old-timer who just doesn’t know better. Or does he? Regardless, hundreds of people are responsible for “The Mule,” who very much should have known better than to release this bizarre, offensive debacle.
With this, as well as Eastwood’s misguided nonfiction/narrative hybrid “The 15:17 to Paris” from earlier this year, it seems Warner Bros. is in the business of handing the movie legend a few million bucks every now and then. That doesn’t mean they also have to make us watch the things – which are at the least totally unwatchable, and at the worst, completely irresponsible.
“The Mule” is adapted by screenwriter Nick Schenk from a New York Times Magazine article, “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-year Old Drug Mule” by Sam Dolnick. (Schenk also wrote Eastwood’s “Gran Torino.”) The film is a fairly straightforward adaptation of the true story, but the racist cultural stereotypes and truly appalling treatment of women are all thanks to Schenk and Eastwood.
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Earl’s life of crime starts with the World Wide Web, which decimates his daylily empire. At the behest of his granddaughter’s pal, he shows up to a tire shop hoping to get paid to drive. The Mexican men he encounters load his truck with duffel bags and a burner phone and send him on his way. It’s easy enough work for the envelopes of cash he receives, and the elderly, white Earl goes undetected by police, especially when he rambles at them about pecans and caramelized corn.
Eastwood is known for his ruthless efficiency as a filmmaker, but “The Mule” feels dashed off at best, barely even a movie. It’s a strange rough draft, poorly executed and disastrously performed, despite the starry cast. Eastwood clearly called in every favor: Bradley Cooper, Andy Garcia, Laurence Fishburne and his own daughter Alison all show up for a few thankless, one-note roles.
The only person who emerges relatively unscathed is Dianne Wiest as Earl’s ex-wife. He’s been a terrible husband and father, and she gives it to him pretty good until she ends up mooning over his presence at her deathbed. Women are either nags or whores in “The Mule,” with absolutely no agency. Aside from his estranged wife and daughter, the only other women in the film are sex workers, not that they have any lines. The camera is more focused on their rear ends than anything else.
Perhaps Eastwood is trying to make some kind of argument about politically correct culture, shoehorning in a bunch of offensive language into the story about a man whom technocapitalism has left in the dust. As much as he grouses about Mexicans, Earl grumbles about cellphones, too. There’s an interesting anti-capitalist strain here, but then you remember who made it and think twice. But by the end of the boring, racist melodrama that is “The Mule,” thinking twice doesn’t even seem worth the effort.
Rated R for language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity.