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The Mule

03 Jan

The Mule—produced and directed by Clint Eastwood. Drama. 116 minutes Color 2018.
★★★
The Story: His business wrecked by the internet, a 90-year-old man becomes the most reliable drug runner in North America.
~
What a neat story for an actor in his ninth decade to star in! And the picture certainly retains its interest when Clint Eastwood is on the screen.

And it loses interest when the two secondary themes surface, of [A] the campaign against him of the Feds. And [B] the campaign against him by his long-abandoned family.

Every fifteen minutes or so these themes reappear, each time with the same material repeated:

[A] An Agency honcho crabs at G-men, Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña, that they must provide more and better drug busts for the Washington Office.

And [B] Dianne Wiest and her daughter crab at Clint for not showing up For All Those Years.

So the fault in The Mule lies not in the stars but in the writing. The writers have composed The Mule out of a handbook for screenwriting, a which says Thou Shalt Create A Character by write-by-the numbers psycho-analyses. But a daughter’s resentment does not make a character of her. All it does is smear the screen with it when the actor appears, and let human truth go begging. Every secondary character in the movie stands trapped in the mechanical inertia of such stencils. Poor Michael Penã does nothing but sit in a car like a car.

For an actor of Michael Peña’s talent, humanity, experience, personality, and age, he and we need more than just that he is the father of four children whom we never see. And Dianne Wiest incessantly bids for our pity as the abandoned wife because the script gives her nothing better to do with her mouth. We have a flash of Gene Hackman, an old acting chum of Eastwood, back into circulation to steal a scene from his friend, but he would have fared much worse had his role been a sunburst instead of a cameo.

Bradley Cooper, as the cop set to catch Eastwood, does just fine because behind Bradley Cooper’s quite ordinary masculinity lies a sense of humor in wait to appreciate whatever he is faced with. A sense of humor is a great tool for an actor (it carried John Wayne right up to his death). And in a role written with no reserves for the character to engage, humor thus becomes the reserve suitable for any occasion.

Eastwood brings the great advantages of his 88 years to the role of the robber. One of those advantages is that he too old to suspect of a crime. And too old to imagine dying. The man has gotten away with 90 years of life, he surely will get away with the rest. Of course, Eastwood’s presence on screen has always been baffling. You cannot but watch him and wonder why.

His acting is not one-dimensional. His acting is non-dimensional. It has always been so, and, indeed, its lack of dimension accounts for his stardom. He presents to us a hollow which we ourselves must fill. And we get sucked into it, simply because it exists, and because we are trained to be seduced by any film before us, a quality inherent in film itself. We do not go to a film not wishing to be taken in. That the hollow we are taken into is not deep does not matter: we are gaga from the start.

Eastwood is convinced of his mule-job, all the more so after he executes it so successfully that with his share of the loot he becomes a public benefactor. And so we the audience root for him not to be caught. Eastwood’s work as an actor is so simple that it carries the film, just as it has done for years. His acting swallows scenes whole without his even having to chew them.

Exactly why the drugs are run into Mexico rather than out of Mexico is unexplained. But Eastwood drives his pickup, holds his own with bandits, sings along with the radio, and as an individual is so much at home in himself you cannot help but want to be in his company.

Sad that he did not wait until he had a better script, for this one has a promising premise. Peter O’Toole lucked-out at a similar age with the script for Venus, a movie in which every supporting actor shines. Instead of which, in The Mule (which should be titled Hemerocallis or at least Day Lily) every supporting actor is made dull by dullness.

I hope this role does not end Clint Eastwood’s acting and directing work. He, like his character here, has been a workhorse. But we never have the sense that Eastwood loves to act, and his directorial style is so laid back it seems devoid of temperament.

I happen to like his laid-back style a lot. It gives me the space and time to enter into the landscape of a place or situation or character and digest something. Of course, Eastwood’s work seems so lanky and relaxed and dispassionate, I wonder why he does it. The music, as always in his films, is first class, and maybe that’s where his true love lies.

Anyhow, I hope he does not get an Oscar for acting this part. He might deserve one, I don’t know. But if he does win one for acting, then I bet he’ll close up shop in Carmel and go home, and I don’t want him to.

I don’t want Eastwood to end. In The Mule he ends up planting day lilies, which is what the character loves to do best. It is a bad prayer to ask for a person to go on doing what he does not love to do best. So, if it is so, I wont.

Instead, I’ll just end up here and plant day lilies myself

 
 
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