Monday, December 24, 2018

The Mule (2018)

I have not seen a new Clint Eastwood film since his last starring vehicle, GRAN TORINO, back in 2009. Almost a decade later comes his return as a star in this drama about a 90-year-old man who has fallen on hard times due to the economic collapse, and becomes a drug runner for a cartel in order to earn some cash.

If this plot sounds a bit far-fetched, keep in mind it was based on a true story that appeared in a NY Times Magazine article, so Eastwood's choice of this role is not entirely an exercise in vanity. It's just unfortunate, as is often the case with Hollywood films, that this incident, which reflects the difficulty of our times and the lengths that desperate people will go to in order to survive, is whittled down to its most trite, cliched, and predictable elements in the name of good storytelling.

The premise is that Eastwood has been an absent husband and father (missing seemingly every milestone in his family's lives) due to his passion for horticulture. It's never really explored at all why he couldn't find room for both in his life, or whether his love of horticulture was a stand-in for an inability to love and connect with those closest to him.

It is his fractured relationship with his family that sets the plot in motion, in one of the film's many highly-contrived scenes. Showing up at his granddaughter's engagement party, an argument erupts when his ex-wife and daughter find out he has been invited. Before he leaves, one of the guests -- a young man with family connections to a drug cartel -- senses that Eastwood is in financial trouble, and tells him of an opportunity to earn some money as a "mule", driving drug shipments for a cartel. Next thing you know, Eastwood is pulling into the garage that the dealers operate out of (in broad daylight, in what appears to be the middle of a busy suburban commercial area), in order to pick up his first load.

Everything goes well. A little too well, in fact, because eventually, Eastwood attracts the attention and respect of the cartel leader (who even brings him to his estate in Mexico for a big celebration). The problems begin when the cartel leader is assassinated, and Eastwood's new "handlers" have no patience for his rogue methods. On top of which, the FBI has been following these developments, and is zeroing in on their target and getting ready to drop the net.

These kinds of plot developments are typical of the film's problems, that rather than letting any situations develop at their own pace, every scene feels shoehorned to serve the narrative, and the growing implausibilities of the situations work against any kind of investment in the material. One aspect of Eastwood's character, never really explored, has him revealing his casual racism and sexism, and imply that perhaps his character is growing based on his interactions with different kinds of people for the first time.

However, some of these situations, such as his encounter with a black family stranded on the side of the road during one of his many trips, strain credibility that he could be quite so out-of-touch. As a result, his interaction with them feels false and hollow, there only to serve the purpose of some vague "character development" that comes from nowhere and goes nowhere. (Also straining credibility are two scenes in which Eastwood's character engages in threesomes with women who appear to be a quarter of his age).

Still, Eastwood's sincere affection for his working-class characters is rare in American cinema. There is an interesting moment when he attends his granddaughter's graduation ceremony, but she is graduating from a cosmetics school rather than a university (in Hollywood, everyone seems to graduate from either Harvard or Yale). This fact is presented entirely without comment, and it's refreshing to see the pride and accomplishment of the graduates as they walk up to collect their certificates rather than being treated like a punchline. Similarly, a scene where Eastwood has paid for the renovation of the VFW hall for his fellow veterans and they come together in celebration, is touching.

That seems to be the central issue in THE MULE. Eastwood uses the severe economic plight of 2010s America as a backdrop for this Robin Hood story of a man who will do anything to provide for himself and set things right with his family, but does seem to be interested in the bigger picture of how conditions got to this point in the first place.

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