WB publicists have been adopting a qualified-hands-off posture with Clint Eastwood‘s The Mule because they’re scared of reactions to casually racist dialogue spoken by Clint’s p.c.-oblivious character, the 90-year-old Earl Stone (based upon real-life drug runner Leo Sharp).
They’ve presumably been fearful that the outrage brigade (a member of which would seem to be Variety‘s Peter Debruge) would howl about what an offense Earl’s vocabulary is to our delicate ears. An old white coot talking like an old white coot…horrors!
Debruge is all but apoplectic about Earl’s racist vocabulary — his review is almost a parody of knee-jerk woke-ism. “Most white Americans have a relative like Earl, who’s old enough to remember a time when good old boys ran the country and everyone else was their inferior,” Debruge notes. So when they start “spewing politically incorrect garbage, most of us let it slide, accepting that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Except you can and we must.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong with presenting bigoted people on-screen, since heaven knows they exist in real life,” Debruge goes on, “but the trouble with The Mule is that it invites audiences to laugh along with Earl’s ignorance. From here, it’s no great stretch to imagine a movement — call it ‘Make Hollywood Great Again’ — advocating for movies in which politically incorrect characters like the ones Eastwood has played for most of his career will be free to speak their minds again.”
Debruge is like Sessue Hayakawa‘s Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai. There’s a part of him that would like to put Eastwood, his producing partners and screenwriter Nick Schenk into tin-box cages and let them bake in the sun.
Yes, there is a kind of amiable, jocular tone in the way Clint’s character tosses off politically incorrect racial terms and other inappropriate-isms, and it does make you half-flinch or at least shake your head. Yup, there are crotchety old guys who think and talk like this, and yeah, they probably voted for Trump, but at the same time they don’t appear to be emissaries of Satan as much as indifferent about whether or not guys like Peter Debruge approve.
As is usually the case with the 80-plus set, it’s best to just offer them a chair and a glass of lemonade and hope for the best.
The bottom line is that The Mule is a very decent, nicely handled film about family, aloofness, guilt and facing one’s own nature.
Indiewire‘s David Ehrlich says it’s Clint’s best in “more than 25 years” — better than Unforgiven? — but I’m playing it safe and calling it his finest since Gran Torino. It’s a plain-spoken, well-ordered saga of a guy coming to terms with his failures as a man and a father — a selfishly-inclined fellow who’s always preferred work over being with family, etc. I think it’s an entirely decent film in this respect, and a well-structured one to boot.
Last night a critic friend told Variety‘s Kris Tapley on Twitter that “friendly neighborhood racist” is a good way of describing The Mule. That plus “prostitutes are fun.” That’s because at the two-thirds mark 90 year-old Earl has it off with a pair of 20something hookers who’ve been hired by the Mexican cartel. It’s an icky concept, agreed, but at the same time I was kind of amazed. Are we to presume that a 90-year-old can, you know, perform in some way? If so, I honestly learned something. I was under the impression 80-plus guys are completely unassertive in that regard.
Again — The Mule is about family vs. being away and feeling guilty and forlorn. It may not devastate you, but it’ll probably get you emotionally toward the end. At least a little bit. It’s not a great film but it’s definitely a fairly good one. It has a heart and a conscience.