1/10 After 37 movies in the director’s chair, not including ones he only produced or starred in, 88-year-old Clint Eastwood remains a cultural icon who commands the respect of his peers and viewership, but with every new movie he directs, it becomes more and more clear that somebody should take the camera away from him – or at least, take the chair away from him.
He makes a real ass out of himself in In The Mule, the new screwball comedy based on the story of Leo Sharp. In the movie, Earl Stone (Eastwood, who also directs and produces), a Korean War veteran whose horticulture business goes under in 2017 because it can’t compete with this newfangled Internet phenomenon, gets into drug running for the cartel as a way to make money for his family and community. An ideal mule because of his age, race and pristine driving record, Stone quickly becomes the cartel’s top man, but then some of the cartel members begin to resent him for reasons that are either unclear, stupid or both. Stone, who is estranged from his family because he consistently picked work over them to an insane, almost hilarious extent, is forced once again to pick between his cartel work and being there for the people he loves.
None of this connects in any way to the DEA investigation led by Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper).
The real-life Sharp was a World War II veteran who became the oldest drug mule in the world for the Sinaloa Cartel. He Sharp was arrested in 2011, at age 87, with 200 pounds of cartel cocaine in his pickup truck. He was convicted for 10 years’ worth of drug smuggling, though there was evidence to suggest he had started as far back as 1990. He was sentenced to three years in prison, but released after one due to his failing health, and died in 2016 at age 92.
Not much else is known about Sharp, and the film’s main tension between the Stone’s family and the cartel is completely fictional. That’s not necessarily a problem, movies get to be fictional sometimes, but it’s a huge problem in this case because those plot elements are extremely poorly thought out.
Nothing the cartel does makes any sense at all, and since the DEA spends almost the full movie stuck in a plot cul-de-sac and Stone is never portrayed as having any difficulties on the road other than the nonsensical harassment from his own cartel, the movie’s entire apparatus for antagonism doesn’t make any sense, which means there’s no tension, which means there’s no story.
Stone happily does his thing for 116 minutes, and cartel members intermittently show up to either praise and throw women at him for being such a good mule, or to threaten to kill him for being a terrible mule, and if it seems like those things are contradictory, congratulations, you’ve just put more thought into this script than screenwriter Nick Schenk.
Stone is alternately praised and chastised by his bosses in the cartel, and it’s dumb and arbitrary and it feels dumb and arbitrary, but the reasons given within the diagesis somehow only make it feel dumber. It represents a fundamental failure to understand how or when to set up and pay off plot elements.
Stone receives frequent praise from his bosses and scrutiny from the DEA because he moves an incredible amount of product, but it’s never made clear why him moving that amount of product is an exceptional thing. Some guys put it in the back of his truck and he drives. The movie skips over the two-day journey from El Paso, Texas to Chicago with a couple of fading shots and a song, presumably because nothing important or tense ever happens.
The film doesn’t deign to show us some actual scenes on the road until Julio (Ignacio Serricchio), apparently boss Laton’s (Andy García) no. 2 man, is assigned to tail Stone on his journeys, and I have so, so many questions. What is the point of a drug mule that has to be escorted on his route by a much more important gangster? How could this possibly be an efficient use of Julio’s time? What reason does the cartel have to suspect Stone? If he was showing up with less cocaine than he departed with, why not just kill him like they already threatened to do when he took his first job? Laton tells Julio that he wants him to observe his best mule’s methods, but what does he possibly expect his no. 2 man to learn from observing some nonagenarian who drives the speed limit?
From a film structure perspective, why do viewers have to wait until Stone is tailed before we finally get a glimpse of what it’s like being on the road? If it’s simply unimportant and uneventful, that’s fine and makes perfect sense, but there seems to be plenty happening once Julio is watching him. Everything in The Mule has been from Stone’s perspective to this point, but restricting only showing what happens on the long highway trip once Julio is tailing him indicates a shift to Julio’s perspective, which, as a storytelling decision, makes absolutely no sense and fits with nothing else in the movie.
I’m not sure if the incredible importance ascribed to Stone by the cartel makes more or less sense when put in context with its counterargument – that this same cartel whose boss hails him as his best mule is also constantly threatening to kill him for being late with his deliveries, something Stone is never shown to be. The first viewers are shown of any tension related to this is when he’s told to stop being late and to follow the designated route, to the point that we were never shown that there even was a designated time or route – and the existence of a schedule or a route makes very little sense, as a route would make Stone much easier to track and he is usually shown to accept deliveries on an individual basis anyway.
With the main overarching tension being over which side of the bed cartel representatives wake up on before a given scene, the main tensions in most scenes are about whether or not Stone’s old-timey charms can help him through a given situation, and this is where the film dips in to spiteful and often racist or misogynist territory. These forays start to feel like an Eastwood power fantasy when you realize how much the film lacks awareness about their context.
Stone is constantly making fun of himself for his inability to text or handle smartphones, which feels silly and self-aware the first time, but does not feel silly and self-aware when he’s ribbing a family on the side of the road for not being able to change a tire. The father is trying to Google instructions, but he’s got no signal! This is the problem with your generation, the movie seems to say.
“This is the problem with your generation,” Stone literally says word-for-word as he righteously spends his valuable time helping the obviously helpless young snowflakes.
Also, the family is black and Stone casually uses a racial epithet with them, and the movie just moves past it. I think it’s supposed to be an adorable “You won’t believe what grandpa said” moment, but instead it’s just gross.
Even more gross, though, is the extended butt scene in the middle of the movie. At one point when he’s in the cartel’s favor, Stone is an honored guest at a cartel pool party with what appears to be every single Hispanic hooker in Chicago. Eastwood and cinematographer Yves Bélanger put the movie completely on hold to spend several minutes slowly leering over every bikini-clad butt at the mansion.
It is the minutes-long cinematic equivalent of a gross old man saying “you know what I mean” with a knowing wink. You want to say you don’t know what he means, but the truth is you know exactly what he means. You just really, really wish you didn’t.
As much as the plot is a master class in what not to do, it’s this sort of scene that drags The Mule from a bad movie to an actively inflammatory one. The story about an old drug runner who wants to buy his way back into his family is simply a framework for Eastwood to create a world where he’s the best again, where his way of thinking is the right way of thinking, where those newfangled smart things can’t make up for good old-fashioned knowhow, where using racial epithets with some helpless family you don’t know is a screwball punchline and where women and brown people know their places. It is a movie that feels as out of touch as Eastwood himself, and deserves the lowest possible recommendation for multiple reasons.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.