The Mule (2018) by Clint Eastwood
Review by Logan Kenny
Clint Eastwood is almost at the end. Regardless of the amount of years or movies he has left in him, he is closer to the end of his life than the beginning and it is only a matter of time before he’s gone entirely. There comes a time where each day could feasibly be your last, a time when you don’t know how long you have left on this earth, and that must change you. You don’t have the time you used to – time that could have been used to make up for your previous mistakes, to live a life of productivity and happiness, or to spend time with those you love. Each second becomes precious, and you need to make the most of them, to try your hardest to fill all of those goals, to unravel your regrets, to try and make amends.
The Mule is about this: the acknowledgement of life’s fragility and impermanence, as well as the attempt to make the most out of what you have left to give. Regardless of whether it is or not – I certainly hope it isn’t – this feels like the last film of his career. It feels like a goodbye. Earl Stone has lost everything: his farm, his family, his security in life and most of his generation. He is trapped alone in a world that he doesn’t understand and his solitude is his own fault, a consequence of the selfish decisions he made throughout his life to prioritize work over family and leisure over responsibility. The opening scene even shows him willingly avoiding his daughter’s wedding in order to win a florist competition. Earl is unable to connect with those he loves, as he forced himself to the road for months at a time while his child grew up. It’s easier to lose yourself to people you never have to see again than continue to hold relationships with those who will be in your life forever. The film doesn’t attempt to justify him for his selfishness, nor redeem him for his failures and criminal decisions over the runtime, but rather it shows the beauty of someone trying to be better before it’s too late.
The film is ostensibly about Earl’s descent into the cartel – how he’s recruited to become the titular “mule” and how this affects his life. But while this is crucial to the events of the film, it also rejects any conventional narrative beats or structures for the majority of the runtime, instead favoring a more shambling presentation. The majority of The Mule is focused on the smaller moments: polka dancing in a reopened bar, eating ice cream sandwiches and singing along to country music while driving. While there are stakes, moments of tension and an emotionally destructive arc, they mostly stay hidden until the third act, the rest seeming perfectly content to just show various lackadaisical aspects of the human condition. There is a great sense of intimacy to his interactions with the supporting characters, from his gradual love for his contacts at each delivery (him learning how to text with the help of one of them is a wonderfully sweet moment) to minor moments with one-off strangers. This, to me, shows a part of Eastwood’s desire in the twilight years of his life to show compassion and love to everyone he encounters, to make the world a little better before he goes. You can feel that through the film.
The only real substantial moments of tension before things escalate is all the scenes with Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña’s DEA agents. In a direct contrast to the more naturalistic, relaxed tone of the Eastwood sequences, these are very rigid and clinical; the lighting is oppressive and the camerawork stilted. It’s about process and doing a job over compassion for others or caring for family. The comparisons to Cooper’s character and a younger version of Earl are made in the text; we get to examine the gradual descent into solitude and regrets, and to understand how Earl ended up the way he did at the start of the film. Devote yourself so much to the road, the hunt, and you lose what really matters. It makes the sequences of Earl driving along the road even more melancholic, with the acknowledgement within the film that his continuous pursuit of solace is helping turn a younger man into him.
The DEA sequences also help contribute to the film’s portrayal of racism and other forms of discrimination. While it’s disingenuous to suggest that Eastwood, an old white man, would ever be a defining voice of anti-discriminatory cinema, The Mule handles things in a surprisingly nuanced way. It never shies away from Earl’s privilege as a white man who would never be conventionally thought to be a mule, and the DEA sequences are all focused on the targeting and manipulation of Latinx persons. The difference between Cooper’s detached interactions with a young Mexican man whom he manipulates into being an informant and that same man’s quiet understanding of Eastwood at the end of the film showcases internalized racism within his character and organization. Most blatantly, in one of the most emotional scenes in the film, his squad of DEA agents pull over a random man of color because they believe he could be the mule they’re looking for. The camera focuses on his distress – although not in an exploitative way – and his dialogue is entirely about his chances of dying at the hands of law enforcement. He asserts that he’s done nothing wrong, and his panic about being shot and becoming another statistic in the never ending lists of police brutality is unbearably heartbreaking. He’s fine, but it is the ever present reminder that driving across America is a different thing for Earl than it is for anyone not coded as white – that so many people don’t get the chance to be listened to before they’re assumed guilty and targeted as such.
This is prominent in the exclusive sequences with Earl as well. Moments of him eating a sandwich with his Mexican handlers, who are far from the kindest to him, suddenly turn dark when a police officer assumes that these men are criminals and illegal immigrants based off their skin color. Even in situations where there is seemingly no conflict, the intrinsic hatred rooted in Americana can always rise up and wreck everything. Earl’s outdated language and forms of societal regression evolve over the film. For example, he uses “n*groes” to describe a black couple who he’s helping with their car. When met with criticism, he acknowledges it and makes an effort to change. It says a lot about the contemporary world that someone making a mistake, listening to criticism and trying to be better for the future is surprising. The film is far from perfect in these respects, but it’s good to see a cartel film actually acknowledge institutional and personal racism, as well as about the importance of trying to break it.
Even in this framework, a film about issues continuously relevant and heartbreaking, The Mule still remembers to make the most of everything positive while you can. Dance your heart out and live life like you’ve only got seconds left of it. It is effective in showing a more layered view of America because it refuses to become a “message movie,” or simplify the complexities of the system for broader appeal. It is a film about casual kind interactions and about institutional violence – and it’s a testament to Eastwood’s skills as a craftsman that he manages to balance these tones without significant whiplash.
The emotional core is the most personally investing aspect, however, and that’s what’s kept the film in my mind over the last month. It was revealed to the public around the time of the US release of The Mule that Sondra Locke, an incredibly talented actress and filmmaker that Eastwood had a controversial and cruel relationship with, had passed away. The themes of regret and not having enough time hit harder in hindsight knowing this. She was alive when he made this film, and she was dead when he released it. He did terrible things to her: he buried her career, and he was a shitty partner and person. He had no excuse of age or time – he was old enough to know what he was doing. Now, at the end of his life, Eastwood is filled with regrets like any old man would be, and I like to believe that he brought some solace or closure to her life before she died. You can’t change the past; you can’t do anything to take back the pain and cruelty you caused, the mistakes you hate yourself for. Maybe you can try and make the world a little better for those you wronged before they go.
In the film, Earl sits with losing someone that he thought would outlive him – someone that he thought he’d never have to face the consequences of saying goodbye to. He is suddenly forced to reckon with the fact that he wasted so much of the time that he should have had with her – that he fucked up and threw it down the drain. All he can do now is hold her, make it a little easier before the end, and try to make amends before the clock runs out and the last breath is made. Eastwood, as a on screen performer, hasn’t been as good as he is in the final 15 minutes of this since Bridges of Madison County. He expresses such sheer vulnerability and looks older and more broken than he ever has before. He is an icon of conventional masculinity, of brooding silence and intensity, of violence and toughness – the aspirational figure that each male should dream of being. To see him old, weak and crying – practically begging for a little more time – is hard to see.
We will never know what happened between Eastwood and Locke before her death, if there was anything at all. It feels wrong not to mention her in discussion of this movie about regret and the consequences of past actions, but I don’t know how else to say it. I don’t know what happened between them before she died. I don’t know if the need to make things better is a facade that only exists for Eastwood on screen, and not in reality. The separation between the art and the artist is impossible to make when it seems that the text overlies with reality. And since we never know what that reality is, maybe The Mule will forever be an incomplete symbol of an ideal ending, of being able to make up for all the shit before it all falls down. All we can do is hope and imagine that things were okay for her – that she died feeling content and loved. I hope above anything else that she was okay.
He sits next to Bradley Cooper’s character, tells him all about where he’s went wrong and how not to make the same mistakes. He sits in a car near him sometime after, and they have a few moments together before they likely never see each other again. There is quiet mournful contemplation between them, before the importance of family over work (the necessity to not be like him) is stressed. These themes are explored throughout the film, as mentioned earlier, but here it isn’t two opposite sides of the law – just a man trying to pass on the mistakes he’s made so another one doesn’t do the same. The light is so minimal because of the car and the shining sun; all we can see is Clint’s tearing eyes and the grand presence of Cooper’s body looming over, with everything else relegated out of frame. It doesn’t need to be like this. It doesn’t have to end in misery or an abrupt collapse. It can be beautiful. Death can be surrounded by those you love and cherish; life can be too. They say goodbye and both go off to live in the futures they’ve made for themselves – one with time to make things easier. Maybe he’ll succeed; maybe the cycle won’t continue.
The film opens with a luxurious garden and ends with another. The location and contexts are so different, but the beauty of nature is ever present. No matter what happens with the humans in this film, the flowers keep blooming, their mesmerizing presence never fading. We start and end life the same way: in darkness. But it means so much more by the end; no matter what happens after, everything you’ve learned or seen or loved is in your heart. At the end of this, you look at those flowers, and instead of seeing the regrets of an old man contained in something he can control, you see the beauty of the natural world. Something that outlives you, something that should last. That’s, to me, the most beautiful thing you can do.
The old man rides his last ride, a legacy left behind – the good, the bad and everything between surrounding it. If this is the end, thank you for making me love movies.