Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Mule – Clint Eastwood in a charming film with an ethically dubious subject matter (Movie House from Friday 25 January)

In The Mule, Clint Eastwood provides the latest addition to the film genre of ‘old man committing a felony’ and surpasses the recent success of Robert Redford’s The Old Man & the Gun.

Based on a true story, it’s a welcome return to the silver screen for the silver-haired actor and director who plays Earl Sharp, a grandfather who in earlier years put his career in horticulture (hybrid day lilies) above his family.

With finances tight (online selling knocked out his catalogue trade), he loses his home in Peoria and takes up an offer to earn money doing what he’s been doing best for the last sixty or more years: driving carefully across the country making deliveries without picking up any speeding tickets.

The size of the wad of banknotes stuffed into a brown envelope in the glove compartment of his pickup truck as payment surprises the somewhat naïve and incurious pensioner. He uses the money to invest in his family and the community, as well as buying a new set of wheels. “Who’d you have to kill to get a place like this?” Sharp asks the Mexican drug cartel leader who demands to meet his prize driver at his luxurious mansion.

In parallel with his rise to become one of the drug cartel’s most successful mules (transferring millions of dollars of heroine across states), there’s a new Drug Enforcement Agency investigator in town, Colin Bates (played by Bradley Cooper), who starts squeezing informants for information and slowly zero in on the cartel’s routes and their prize mule.

Eastwood visibly ages between the opening scenes which show Sharp in his late 70s and the main action 12 years later in his early 90s. Subtle changes in his gait, stoop and dodderiness, together with more pronounced wrinkles, make it a very believable transition and Eastwood (aged 88 at the time of filming) makes it feel very natural.

Despite Sharp’s glorious political incorrectness – due it seems to age and ignorance rather than any malice – there’s a warmth to his interactions with those supplying and receiving the bags that are loaded into the back. His Luddite relationship with modern technology is charming. His instinct is to help people … albeit somewhat at odds with his cargo.

Outside of Sharp’s family – in which the strains between his estranged wife (Dianne Wiest), daughter (Alison Eastwood) and granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga) are well observed – women tend to be sex objects with single scenes and no backstory.

It’s a lovely film and a very pleasant watch. Saying that, I’m troubled and slightly haunted about the ethics of whether a film about drugs can be ‘pleasant’ or upbeat or celebrated. As a character Earl Sharp gets his comeuppance and finds redemption from the break in family relationships. But that’s not the whole story.

While the law tends to catch up with these old gangsters, like The Old Man & the Gun, Eastwood’s new film makes no reference to the true victims of the crimes, and the effect on the lives of those users taking the drugs. And while Sharp doesn’t take drugs, it is clear that he personally enjoys other vices that are not victimless.

Instead The Mule concentrates on one man’s late realisation that family is more important than work, even lucrative driving for bosses who become more tetchy and controlling as the value of the packages increase. It highlights our human desire to be ‘someone’ within our spheres of influence, the desire to find freedom (perhaps even in being caught) and to be loved.

There’s a good pace and some nice repetition to the 116-minute movie, much less lethargic than the aforementioned Redford’s bank heist, but travelling along under the speed limit with no need for jump cuts to squeeze in extra storyline. As tension builds in the plot, it is never allowed to translate to the soundtrack and you’ll be humming along with the easy listening tunes from Sharp’s car radio.

Overall, The Mule is much more accomplished compared with Eastwood’s last directorial disaster in the terribly flawed The 15:17 to Paris. However, the box office opportunity to see Clint Eastwood back at work is slightly marred by the odd selection of the story to be told.

The Mule opens in Movie House cinemas on Friday 25 January.

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