The Mule: A terrific Clint Eastwood shines in this moving drama

An old man with a love for the road and a desire for money gets in with a cartel. Meanwhile, a DEA agent has to make some arrests if he is to return to his hometown. Sounds quite the material for a thriller, yes? Director Clint Eastwood tells you hi, and fashions a drama out of this premise. It’s a story that is focussed less on the guns, but more on them wielding them, and who they are aiming the crosshairs at. That’s why you have dry conversations between agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and his boss (Lawrence Fishburne), which typically end with the latter giving permission for the former’s plans. It’s how you imagine these bureaucratic conversations typically happen. This film takes long, deep breaths, even if its characters aren’t allowed by life to do the same. Agent Bates needs to make urgent arrests, and has barely any time to settle down in the new town. The 90-year-old Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) is getting kicked out of his place and needs some quick money. His family meanwhile could do with some of it too, and more importantly, with some of his time. Earl seems convinced though that he’s living life to the fullest. He’s constantly going around telling people to do the same, and has plenty of condescension for the world of mobile phones and the internet. But the film asks how much he really is living, if it’s not shared with those who matter.

The Mule
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, Alison Eastwood

The Mule throws up such questions every once in a while, and it’s able to only because it’s less concerned with being about sparring between the DEA and the narcos, and more with drawing a life size portrait of an old man, of a flawed nonagenarian who’s quite difficult to like. I’m quite fascinated by films whose central character is as disagreeable. I suppose it helps you measure him up from a distance. Does he feel guilty about drinking at a bar as his daughter is getting married? Is he unwilling to be with his family, or unable? Clint Eastwood is brilliant as the character, and plays him with a confusing mix of vulnerability and strength. He’s at once arrogant, and at once, not. He’s at once scared of death, and at once, not. He has a biting tongue, but knows exactly when to shut up — like when a few cartel musclemen threaten him with firearms. This isn’t a film to take such easy opportunities to create heroic moments for him because let’s face the truth, he isn’t a hero. He’s a lousy piece of work who’s in need of redemption, even if he will do everything possible to convince you otherwise.

I admired that The Mule extends its humanisation to the cartel workers, without ever stepping into the zone of romanticisation. One of the narcos men, Julio, is originally shown to be a cold, manipulative boss, but like a flicked coin, you see the other side: a loyal man who’s grateful for having been rescued out of insignificance. And then the side turns again. Another narcos man, one far colder and brutal than Julio, is also shown to possess a reasonably tender side, when his empathy almost threatens to cost him his life. It’s fascinating to observe these changes, without ever deeming them to be inconsistencies. It’s just the many shades of being human. Some people are good at, say, family rearing, and some aren’t. Some people want to, but can’t. As a wizened Earl says, “Unfortunately, I can’t buy time.” For the most part, I found The Mule to be an engaging portrait of a horticulturist who comes to terms with the oxymoronic truth that some flowers blossom only as they wither.

This review was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.

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