Sunday 16 December 2018

Movie Review: The Mule (2018)

A drama and character study, The Mule is a simple yet elegant story of an elderly man looking for renewed purpose.

In Illinois, Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) ran a successful horticulture business, but was a neglectful husband to his now former wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and an inattentive father to his bitter daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood). Now in his eighties, Earl did not keep up with online commerce and goes bankrupt. Granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) maintains a good relationship, and one of her friends connects Earl with a drug cartel in need of reliable transport across state borders.

Earl starts making long drives to deliver bagfuls of narcotics, and establishes a reputation as a dependable and trustworthy mule, attracting the admiration of Mexican cartel boss Laton (Andy Garcia). Earl uses his substantial earnings to help good causes in his community, and to mend fences with his family. But Drug Enforcement Agency agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Peña) start to close in, with their boss (Laurence Fishburne) desperate for a big bust.

Directed by Eastwood and written by Nick Schenk, The Mule is inspired by a true story. The film is a warts-and-all exploration of a life full of joy and regret, and a remarkable second wind carrying Earl into an ocean of criminal activity. An old man at peace with himself and long past caring about niceties and political correctness, Earl makes for an ideal and nearly undetectable criminal.

Eastwood never judges his protagonist, instead allowing Earl to arrive at his own conclusions. With the curtain about to fall on his life, this is a man who learns almost too late that career success at the expense of a family life in tatters may not have been the best trade off. The same oblivious attitude that led Earl down the wrong path the first time around remains in evidence as he never seems to question the devastating social ills his mule activities are helping unleash.

But at least this time Earl uses his windfall Robin Hood style to rebuild community and recreational centres and help his family members, gradually earning his way back into the life of Mary and Iris. He will again confront a work-versus-family decision point, this time with the threat of a brutal death for defying vicious criminals. But having been around the block once before, Earl is better equipped to recognize the landmarks.   

The film is not without weaknesses. Plot holes abound in the intelligence battle between the cartel and the DEA, and The Mule is another film where the criminals are highly resourceful except when it suits the script. Overall the investigative elements featuring the high profile trio of Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña and Laurence Fishburne are underwritten for the available talent. A couple of key characters, including a Filipino informer and a chief cartel lieutenant, are given prominence then ignored.

Eastwood's directing is an example of eloquent efficiency, the character conflicts created with sharp and short strokes, allowing plenty of time for road trip interludes showcasing Earl's comfort with ruling his domain behind the wheel of his pickup on the open highway. When the time comes for serious conversations, Schenk conjures up memorable exchanges between Earl and Bates at a diner, and then between Earl and Mary, reflecting on second chances.

The Mule is about seizing life's next opportunity at any age, as discovered by the old man absentee. 

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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