If Clint Eastwood is trying to send an apologetic message to his family, maybe he should do it in person. At the very least it would be more sincere than The Mule.
In his clumsy new film, Eastwood tells the story of Earl Stone, a fictionalized version of a very real WWII veteran who wound up running drugs for the cartel into his 80s. When we meet Earl (Eastwood) things seem pretty good. He is a world renowned horticulturalist, adored by everyone he meets. Things aren’t as rosy as they seem of course. As Earl sits alone in a hotel bar, his daughter (played by Eastwood's own daughter Alison) is getting married without her father to give her away.
It's the sort of cliche set up that informs our understanding of just how much Earl's absence has broken his family. At least it would have if the film was at all interested in anyone else's emotion. 'The Mule' is almost exclusively about Earl's part of that equation. Only concerned with his guilt.
That imbalance in storytelling is the first of many ways in which The Mule feels condescending. Condescending to characters whose emotions aren't deemed worthy of examining, to Eastwood's own family who are represented here by hollow Shells of real people, and finally to viewers who are expected to believe a redemptive arc when only the aggressor's feelings seem to matter.
As Earl begins running drugs this condescension only gets more blatant and more problematic. We get introduced to the DEA as more of an abstract bureaucracy than any sort of functioning law enforcement agency. At one point they're just going to give up searching for the people bringing drugs into Chicago, their one and only job, because its taking too long.
When we meet the cartel a caption comes up to tell the audience where they are. "Mexico" it reads. Eastwood and his crew couldn't even be bothered to designate a city or State of Mexico in which a significant portion of his movie is set. The whole movie carries on like this, from the offhand charged comments to the unavoidable white savior narratives that keep popping up.
All of these complaints however pail in comparison to what truly ails The Mule. This is a film that, much like the far superior 'The Old Man and The Gun,' attempts to make a hero out of a criminal. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with that. Directors like Steven Soderbergh have made a name on films following good nuanced characters committing crimes. What his films and 'The Old Man and The Gun' understand about the genre that Eastwood misses here is the nuance.
The best crime dramas understand that their pro t agonists must function as a sort of antihero. Conversely, there is The Mule, expecting sympathy for a man who has never shown he is worthy of it. If the audience can't root for Earl, the film gives them no other reason to care.
Clint Eastwood has never been one to make films that operate on a level deeper than their blunt surface. His style has always been to craft the gritty action he remembers from many of his early wild west roles. It's the reason that his stories don't concern themselves with the supporting cast. The Mule is similarly more about the action than its causes and participants. If Eastwood does see some of himself in Earl Stone, The Mule is a naive attempt to placate his guilt. Perhaps if he truly wants to apologize for his absence he should dig deeper than he dared to with this film.