“Jesus says he came to seek and save that which is lost,” comes from the truck’s radio as Clint Eastwood (Francis in the Navy, Tarantula) plays protagonist Earl Stone who immediately changes the station on his first drug run as the eponymous mule in the late 2018 offering promising a film void of spiritual sophistication that, as expected, later airs complaints about such an absence.
It can be difficult to determine the motivation behind any artist’s renderings; some are less heavy-handed than others, some make the plot and story difficult to follow to maximize varied interpretations, and still some are quite overt in their creation’s message, if it has one. And that’s the problem with The Mule. Earl Stone, as portrayed, is a vile man. He has sold himself to evil. He values his flower business over time with an obligation to his family. He disregards the typical propriety of simple social interactions and brags about being considered a worthless person in different languages. After the movie establishes him as an irredeemable character, it doubles down, asking us to sympathize and laugh with him.
This is a common strategy employed in many contemporary t.v. shows and movies. The horrible, ill-mannered, self-aggrandizing psychopath is made humorous, likable, and even relatable. It’s a curious technique for an industry that now famously espouses a new moral superiority via the contradictory absurdity of subjective Victorianism.
As Earl’s flower business falls to the advent of the internet, he finds himself lost in his old age as to what new obsession with work he can find. He is introduced to smuggling drugs and the audience becomes privy to just how abased his morals, or scruples, as he would regard them, are. Being a Korean War veteran, he doesn’t balk at the viciousness of the trade and we see that as long as he is being honored as a hard worker, whether it be the flower business or drug smuggling, he is satisfied. This, of course, is the very definition of self-glorification. Or more accurately, the American Dream.
The story is well-acted with convincing performances from even minor characters. It’s well-paced and doesn’t drag on. It’s a well-made film, as expected from Clint Eastwood, who also directed it, but what the story has to say is more reflective of current American culture as opposed to the craftsmanship of movie-making.
Movies have always managed to reflect large trends in society. Westerns were very popular at a time when the American zeitgeist was reminiscent of its prairie days. War movies have always been popular but certain periods of history marked heightened popularity resonating with our collective nationalistic psyche.
And in The Mule, we see yet another story on the screen about broken families with no resolution, reconciliation, or hope. But it’s Clint Eastwood, who most people know and admire from previous cinematic masterpieces, so we want to like him and it’s easy to like him, but when the film points out that Earl has set a record for the amount of narcotics trafficked into the inner city neighborhoods of Chicago, a cognitive dissonance, at best, rings some moral bell, when the mind should be reeling at such news.
It’s easy to feel tricked. Innumerable lives have been destroyed, in part, thanks to Earl. If it was an unknown actor playing the part, the results seemingly would have to vary.
Aside from being a fable about American tenacity, it comments heavily on family, but in a bizarre do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do way. Several times, fellow criminals and Earl himself embrace the idea of belonging to a tribe, being someone to a group of people, and feeling adopted into a larger more familial collective, but never one’s actual family. That’s not an option. It’s not a family film. It’s actually the opposite. It seems to say that family are the ones who can help you glorify yourself; the people who can help you find “your truth”. This of course is logistically suicidal, and the movie shows that, but quixotically glorifies that end.
And as evil does, truth is inverted here. Earl disregards the message of the gospel early on in the film; the kingdom as God’s people, God’s family. Those who help you glorify Him, not yourself. Glorifying the Truth in Him. But Earl isn’t looking for that and consequently he won’t find it.
It’s hard to know if the story is intended to function as a prophetic parable or just the post-modern crowd pleaser it appears to be on the surface. When the titular character abandons moral absolutes for the warmth of subjective realities, a movie that could have rolled away some stone in the audience’s heart, instead celebrates said stone in a kind of fatalistic “It is what it is” finality.
As the final scene unfolds, one can almost hear the screams from the city, if not for the Babylonian percussionists who made this film.