The Mule ★★½

The Mule is a bad movie. Plain and simple--most of the acting is some of the worst ever committed to film, and I think the script is the worst of any movie I’ve subjected myself to this year. The few bright spots (mostly just Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, and Laurence Fishburne’s performances) are wildly underutilized. On top of all that, the film crawls at an incredibly slow pace for its entire runtime, only occasionally advancing in meaningful ways.

And yet, despite all of this: the film fascinates me. Not even in the “so bad it’s good” curiosity kind of way. No, The Mule is legitimately an interesting film to think about and deconstruct. I saw it pitched frequently as being about Clint Eastwood’s struggle to right past wrongs, an introspective film about his own failings. Certainly, Eastwood has crafted a film about himself, but not in that way.

Rather, the film strikes me as his grappling with a world he doesn’t necessarily fit into anymore. At 80 years old, his brand of politics and understanding of how the world works have lost much of their relevance. The tide of history has turned against Eastwood. I, for one, am more than happy to see him lost in that wave, another wealthy baby boomer forgotten in the harsh progression of time.

With The Mule, it almost seems as if Eastwood feels the same way about himself. There are multiple scenes that feel explicitly designed as repentance. But in these moments, where he almost apologizes for his harmful politics, he still can’t quite go all the way. He doesn’t know how to portray, for instance, the racialized patterns of police brutality. And the film is still filled with plenty of racist and sexist tropes--tropes he still can’t quite seem to get over.

But it’s interesting to see him try. The Mule doesn’t much feel like a Clint Eastwood movie. And it’s tough to believe he’s actually changed in some way, since earlier this year saw the release of The 15:17 to Paris. Still, there’s something here. Unlike many of his past films, I left The Mule feeling contemplative rather than just angry. There’s a good movie, buried in here somewhere. I suspect, however, it would require removing Eastwood from the helm.