Let’s say you’re a senior citizen – an old man, past 70 – with a meager income and not much hope for a viable future. The bank has foreclosed and your family will have nothing to do with you. It could happen. What would you do for money? To stay alive?
Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule” answers that question, sort of, in a way that is more satisfying than I expected. He does it in the way he usually makes movies – quietly, with a minimum of fuss and a straightforward approach to problems and solutions. After sitting through a couple of hyperactive movies loaded with quick cuts and trendy narrative loops, I was happy to see a well-crafted story that says what it means and means what it says. Sometimes less is a hell of a lot more.
Eastwood isn’t my favorite filmmaker; his unobtrusive, one-and-done style sometimes feels a little too subdued. His style is simply to start the film rolling and capture the scene. Some other people cut it together. He supplies a jazzy piano score. And that’s pretty much it. There, I have just described the style of “The Mule” for you.
But there is a lot to be said for this movie. It stars Eastwood – himself an octogenarian, or older – as an old man with strained family relations, who didn’t take care of his money when he had it, and now faces all manner of financial difficulty. He’s lost his home and business, he drives a shitty old clunker, and things are looking pretty bleak.
Then one day, a Mexican fellow hands him a phone number and recommends he call for work. This sends the old man straight into the clutches of a Mexican cartel, which needs innocent-seeming “mules” to transport cocaine, guns, etc., into the United States.
Eastwood plays this perfectly straight. No shit, the old guy starts driving contraband across the U.S. for a deadly foreign syndicate. We can understand why. (It doesn’t hurt that this is based on a true story.) What does he have to lose? He’s at the end of his life and things are going from bad to worse. His ex-wife hates him, his daughter hates him, and he’s losing his granddaughter. The cartel pays him big money just to do a little driving. All of a sudden, he’s in the black! He can buy a new truck! He can fix up the old VFW! He buys his house back from the bank! Isn’t it amazing what a little tax-free cash can do?
The old man isn’t a bad guy, just desperate. Yes, he realizes he’s technically doing the wrong thing, but hey, when you’re his age and people are leaving envelopes stuffed with cash in your glove box, what’s the harm? Thanks to some seriously un-flashy direction, and a genuinely sincere performance, Eastwood makes us sympathize.
Of course, there is a flip side to the coin. Bradley Cooper (fresh off “A Star is Born” – magnificent, by the way), turns up as a hungry DEA agent anxious to make a big bust. He spends most of his time nibbling around the edges of Eastwood’s story, but as expected, the two finally cross paths, then collide. Cooper doesn’t turn in his usual mega-watt performance here, but at least his quiet sincerity fits in with the rest of the movie. It is all of a piece.
I liked this movie very much. It is a different kind of crime story with a different kind of criminal at its center. No, we cannot condone working for the cartel, and yes, Eastwood does extend his sympathy a bit too generously to men who kill for a living. But you know what? This movie takes its time to make us care for the main character, and we feel for him and everyone in his family. We believe (almost) every moment of this film, because it never goes over the top or gives us a big action scene or shoot out. Things resolve unexpectedly, with Eastwood’s character realizing and admitting the error of his ways and owning up to them. He goes quietly into that good night, but not without first having done a little good for a few select people. The ones most important to him. There’s something to that.