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The Mule

The Mule

Old men don't think the law should apply to them, and
maybe they're right

dir: Clint Eastwood


This is like the eleventy millionth Eastwood flick that he’s directed, and, who knows, he could have at least another 100 in him. Of course, however many more films Eastwood is going to make and star in these days, they’re not going to be that different. He’s going to play a character who’s an old guy, who is a Korean War veteran, who’s irascible and vitriolic about the youth of today, perhaps estranged from his family, but, no matter what he did, he loves them and he’s sorry.

His family, whether daughters or granddaughters or ex-wives, are all exasperated by him and stuff he did or didn’t do decades ago, but eventually, because they don’t really have much of a choice, forgive him for his transgressions.

How do I know this is the plot of this and future films of his? Because. Just because. It’s an educated guess. It’s also a safe bet.

Every flick is the same because Eastwood is the same man. Whether he’s playing the lead of a fictional story or a true story that isn’t about him per se, but which easily be warped into his kind of story.

But, and I’m ashamed of myself a bit for what I’m about to write, that’s why we love him.

Not every flick that Eastwood makes is as good as the good ones, and many of them completely lose their way, or start and finish terrible. But when they work, when we get where he’s coming from and forgive him for his awful racial and sexist attitudes (or don’t) that often bleed through into his characters, we’re really forgiving many of the older men in our lives, some of whom we already love, some maybe we don’t, but at the very least we somehow (ill-advisedly) cut him a break because, well, we sense the end is probably near anyway, so why fight anymore?

I can’t possibly claim to be definitive or scientific about this opinion, because it’s just my arsehole opinion. It’s a feeling so strong that it approaches some kind of truth. There are plenty of jerks with unreconstructed attitudes towards women, people of colour, other ethnicities other than the default they presume of white and Anglo-Saxon, and people of the whole rainbow of sexualities and genders, and some days it seems like we’re drowning in their vitriol. They seem to dominate a lot of the more poisonous discourse that pervades all forms of media, that perversely keeps telling us “Damn political correctness is strangling honest discourse, why I can’t even say anything without someone jumping down my throat or HR getting involved bloody feminists communists pinkos gayos greenos etc etc”. And yet we can’t seem to get away from them telling us how much they can’t say what they think anymore.

I literally work with one of these old jerks, and I literally can’t get him to shut up about how he can’t say the obnoxious things he wants to say, all the live long day.

Yet how do we reconcile this feeling that these superannuated relics have with the reality, being that we can’t get them to shut up? We acknowledge, perhaps, that along with the traditional owners of the land we are guests upon, and leaders past present and emerging (yes it is NAIDOC week, why do you ask?) old people sometimes feel irrelevant, and ashamed that both the world is passing them by and that their opinions aren’t as central or taken as the default anymore.

Leo Sharp was a guy in his 80s who worked as a drug mule for the Mexican Sinaloa cartel. That actually happened. The thinking was, I guess, that a nice, upstanding white American would never be tracked by the Drug Enforcement Agency or the FBI because, really, it’s only the evil people from south of the border who do such awful things. He was a renowned horticulturalist who created his own breeds of hybrid flowers, and he smuggled tonnes of cocaine and money for the cartel.

Earl Stone (Eastwood) does all the same stuff for the same reasons, but Eastwood, of course, needs to put his particular spin on things. He has to complain about the price of stamps, or how his kids don’t call him often enough, and how you can’t use the n word without complaints anymore, and wishes he could somehow say “Get Off My Lawn!” in a menacing tone while holding a shotgun, probably.

Actually, while Earl is definitely on the outs with his family, in that he’s completely estranged from them, this is actually a gentler spin on the tough old bastards Clint usually plays in this last stage of his career. Earl’s problem isn’t that he’s too outspoken or racist or too much of a tough nut; it’s that he’s always been a fairly self-centred jerk who always preferred spending time with anyone else other than his family. In interacting with others, or with delighting strangers (and, it’s strongly indicated, sleeping with many of them), Earl found meaning or comfort that he never could in the arms of his family.

Well, boo fucking hoo. Anyway, as an old man, he’s squandered whatever minor fame as a successful horticulturalist he might have earned, and burned through the money, so when the cartel comes knocking, Earl is sure he can earn his way back into his family’s good graces, help out the old coots at the American equivalent of the RSL, and basically reinforce the illusion that he was a charming man of influence and substance, like he’d always hoped.

Yeah, I’m sure that will go great, and that the cartel will be totally cool with that.

The film, like the real story, has a hard time not crowing about what a sweet arrangement this must have ended up being for the protagonist. This doesn’t want to be a Crime Doesn’t Pay public service announcement, nor does it want to glorify what he did (though, and I’m not exaggerating about this, the flick does show Earl partying with working girls and the Cartel, partying like someone sixty years younger would have trouble keeping up with). It wants to show that whatever financial benefits he derived, it never could have made up for the decades of neglect, of never being there for his wife and kids, and that all the flashy gifts to grandkids and such don’t make up for that lack. That even if something can be forgiven, that it doesn’t undo history or repair the ache that’s been there for too long.

It can’t be just a coincidence that in the role of the daughter, unhappy with Earl’s continued upsetting of her mother, and disgusted by the manipulations of his granddaughter, is played by someone called Alison Eastwood. I’m sure the surname is a coincidence…no, she’s his daughter, one of many, many children from many women. I wonder if he apologises to all of them for decades of neglect by casting them in roles in his films, and apologising to them in the script because he can’t do it in real life?

Who knows, but it’s a fascinating method to have at your disposal, one which very few people on the planet have access to in a way that isn’t disturbing or creepy. I mean, anyone can make a movie on their phone, but, it’s hard to get people to say the lines you want without a financial incentive.

An FBI jerk (Bradley Cooper, acting in person when he can’t swing work as a talking raccoon in the Marvel movies) starts hearing about some mule the cartel are using to move massive amounts of product. So very slowly, over the course of the agonising narrative as things start off okay for Earl and pretty much stay okay over the course of the movie until the end, he gradually gets closer and closer to his target, never figuring that the person he’s after is this aged old coot. They even share a scene together in a diner, as Earl overhears the agent sounding like he’s ditching one of his kid’s birthdays in order to work. Of course Earl advises him that nothing’s more important than family, and you’ll never get that time back, and they’ll never really forgive you or see the value in the reasons why you couldn’t come home.

Yes, all very touching stuff. Of course, as self-reflective as Earl-Clint seems to be, he never makes the further intuitive leap to acknowledging “Well, if I wasn’t transporting drugs for one of the most ruthless and murderous cartels on the planet, maybe the other guy wouldn’t have to be on the road and could instead be spending those precious moments with his beloved family?”

No, from Earl’s perspective, this crime that he’s participating in is a victimless crime. He’s just moving stuff from here to there, he’s not shooting people or forcing them to do lines or become addicts or sell their children into slavery for the product. He’s just making some cash like any decent American, and these goons who hassle him or chastise him are just stand ins for the youth of today.

One of the cartel handlers, being Julio (Ignacio Serrichio) seems perpetually perplexed by everything Earl does and says, like it’s the first time he’s ever heard such concepts, or has never met an old man before. He seems genuinely blown away by how chill Earl is, and how nothing ever really seems to phase him that much. When tasked to keep Earl on track and on time, in seeing how Earl acts, he even complains back to his hierarchy, wishing for some greater level of control over him. The cartel boss (Andy Garcia) basically tells him Earl is priceless, and he could learn a thing or two from him, because he’s so great.

One of my favourite scenes in the flick, and probably that of many other older men, is in a restaurant that Earl asserts makes the best pulled pork roll in all of the States, or Illinois, or wherever. The other patrons are looking at the cartel guys like they’ve just climbed over Trump’s Wall with knives between their teeth, but Earl doesn’t care, and implores them to try the sandwich, because it’s the best. And you’ve got to take time for things you enjoy in life, even when you’re transporting large quantities of drugs for a cartel that will murder your grandkids and their neighbours too if your delivery goes awry.

When a racist cop starts hassling the two cartel goons, not for being cartel goons, but for being of Hispanic appearance, Earl steps in to stop the situation from escalating. I don’t think we’re entirely meant to buy that he’s doing it out of the goodness of his heart, or because of genuine multicultural-supportive sentiment. After all, he’s happily worked with people from that background for decades, and happily slings a racial epithet or two at them, and plus they’re his meal ticket: the cartel is both his employer and the main threat to his continued survival and that of his estranged family.

But we’re meant to think, “well, these old occasionally racist coots aren’t all bad, maybe they’re even capable of redemption”, and apply it to all the racist old coots we know in our lives. Well, Clint, I don’t know about that. I loved my mum, and she was a racist old coot before she died, and I never accepted that part of her or that people could racially abuse people to their faces and not themselves face consequences, but thankfully it never caused a fracture in our relationship.

Maybe it only applies to racist old men. Clint has a complicated relationship with ethnicity, and I have to differentiate between the man and the roles he’s played. Up until fairly recently he’s played characters in his own films who routinely use racist terms to refer to other characters (I’m especially thinking of Gran Torino), and even had a bizarre interlude where he had a white character (played by his son Scott Eastwood) being hassled by African-American ‘thugs’, only to chase off the thugs and then chastise the white boy for trying to walk around and act like Eminem. I mean, this was set in Detroit, so I’m even more confused as to what he was doing. Should he just have turned to the camera and yelled out at the people in the audience not to mimic African-Americans because it’s cultural appropriation or because they’re degenerates or what? Or was it specifically aimed at his son?

It’s even more complicated by the films he’s made that explicitly go against the racial stereotyping and prejudices that his other films seem to trumpet and make excuses for, being the two-for-one deal of Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, which went out of its way to humanise its protagonists beyond crude stereotyping and beyond narrative necessity.

I genuinely don’t know where Eastwood’s head is at these days, but that’s his business. It’s easy to assert that the story doesn’t go out of its way to depict the cartel in racialist terms, in that, yes, the cartel is made up of murderous scumbags, but as long as they treat Earl well, they’re decent people capable of higher feelings, hopes and aspirations. Once the decent cartel people are side-lined, and more ruthless Mexicans are in charge, well, everything starts falling apart, and Earl also has to start reckoning with other issues out of his control, like the unbridgeable distance that time and his own neglect created with his family.

He can still try though, that’s all he can do, even if it’s too late.

Sure, so maybe it’s all a self-serving narrative, maybe it’s not personal for Clint, maybe he does it because narrative-wise he knows it connects with elder audiences. I’ve had multiple men over sixty and beyond tell me that they loved Gran Torino so much if they could they would vote in a referendum in order to allow men of a certain age to legally marry DVD copies of Gran Torino, so something about what Clint does deeply resonates with them. I can see it. I don’t have to discredit it or dispute it. I can acknowledge that it resonates with me as well, and that I look through the eyes of the neglected children seeing a parent who abandoned them and yearn to give up the forgiveness that these elder characters crave, and that despite my more cynical impulses, I let his trickery work on me, and they render his films (not all of them) deeply enjoyable. I genuinely enjoyed the heck out of this flick, and it’s well-structured despite knowing what’s going to happen, and the fact that it’s a true story doesn’t decrease the tension or work against it. Everyone around him who has to act so exasperated by him gets to mostly do some strong work, and they all work so well together, even if a lot of the time actors seem to be awe-struck by him.

To really be able to argue that this is a great film I’d have to be able to say that the flick would still work even without Clint in the lead role, that some other elder actor who’s been beloved or respected for decades could pull it off. Thing is, I really don’t think it’s the case. We bring so much goodwill to Clint’s performances; we front-load our expectations (he rarely varies his performances, let’s be honest), that he really has to do something awful for us not to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Honestly, I really enjoyed The Mule. Who knows, maybe it’s actually a strong flick made by a guy so close to death we will forgive him almost anything.

8 times I would not be tangling with the cartel at any age, but let’s be honest they’re not exactly begging me to work for them out of 10

“You're just willing to... You live so long, I think you've probably lost your filter
- “Really. I never realized I ever had one...” – political correctness run amuck – The Mule