The Mule

Last week saw the release of two rather cynical American films, Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux and Clint Eastwood’s The Mule. The first addresses our culture’s acclimation to random violence, while the second considers our nation’s losing war on drugs. Neither film proposes solutions to the issues they raise, suggesting fatalistically that we’re simply stuck with them. But where Vox Lux raises a sense of alarm over this conclusion, The Mule—a more complex and ultimately more provocative work—is disarmingly upbeat. Eastwood, directing a script by Nick Schenk, suggests that the country’s social ills haven’t fundamentally altered the American character; the people the movie depicts are still capable of being nice to one another and even doing good in spite of the dark cultural climate they inhabit. This position stands in sharp contrast to that of Vox Lux, which depicts both American society and individual Americans as irreversibly diseased. Corbet’s film is bitter and angry and leaves a bad taste in your mouth, while Eastwood’s gives you something to savor and chew on.

I’ll say this for Vox Lux, though: Corbet excels at setting a mood. The actor-turned-director conjures up an air of discomfort at the start of the film that becomes steadily more commanding as the narrative proceeds. Vox Lux begins with a brief introduction to Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), a 14-year-old girl growing up on Staten Island in 1999. Over footage of video-shot home movies, Willem Dafoe delivers Corbet’s purplish narration in a stark tone, informing us that “at the beginning, [Celeste] was kind and full of grace.” (His worried voice implies that she will lose these qualities over the course of the story.) From there, Corbet presents shots of an adolescent boy walking down a road in the middle of the night; this is the boy who will stage a massacre at Celeste’s junior high, shooting her in the neck in the process of gunning down many of her classmates. In recovery, Celeste writes a song to work through her feelings about the massacre; she performs it at a church vigil for the victims, media outlets disseminate it, and the song becomes a nationwide hit. Some recording studio executives like what they hear, and in short time they’re grooming Celeste to become a pop star.

In this development, Corbet issues a critique of culture industry cynicism, delineating the process by which a victim of gun violence is used to sell records. The director takes a cold, detached approach to Celeste’s transformation, maintaining the ominous tone of the opening scenes as the teenage girl practices in a recording studio, works with a choreographer, and meets with industry professionals. (The tone is consistently enhanced by an immersive sound design and Scott Walker’s eerie original score.) One isn’t exactly surprised when Corbet jumps forward to 2017 and reveals that the 31-year-old Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) has become a cynical, self-involved prima donna. This second chapter of the film opens with another scene of random violence: a massacre at an eastern European seaside resort by gunmen wearing masks made popular by one of Celeste’s music videos. (Corbet films the attack in an extended Steadicam shot, a reflection of his refined aesthetic sensibility.) When Celeste holds a press conference to respond to the event, she speaks condescendingly of the gunmen before turning the attention to herself. She declares that she won’t cancel the concert she has scheduled for that night, saying it’s her responsibility to bring people joy. The film concludes at the concert, with Celeste giving an impressive performance despite being addled by drugs—a discomforting triumph of pop escapism over real-world concerns.

The narrative of Vox Lux invites at least two responses. You can feel implicated in Corbet’s cultural critique or share in his aestheticized detachment, with its suggestions of moral superiority. Or you can throw up your hands at the futility of it all. Celeste is clearly a lost soul, having grown desensitized from trauma, drugs, and years of pampering; the narrator even divulges near the end that she feels she’s sold herself to the devil. Still, there’s something commendable about Corbet’s unwavering mean-spiritedness. Never do he and Portman try to render the grown-up Celeste sympathetic, and the film’s portrayal of the music industry is so pessimistic that you can’t ever question where the filmmaker stands.

Where Vox Lux is undone by its self- righteousness, The Mule thrives in teasing ambiguity. Based on a true story, Eastwood’s film centers on Earl Stone, a 90-year-old World War II vet who improbably becomes the top drug runner for a Mexican cartel. Like the protagonist of Eastwood’s Gran Torino (which was also scripted by Schenk), Earl is stubborn, casually bigoted, and hoping to make up for a lifetime of regrets. After paying off the mortgage on his house, he uses the money he makes from drug smuggling to buy the affection of his estranged family members and fix up the local VFW hall. One comes to regard Earl as inherently well-intentioned even though he shows no moral compunction about breaking the law; the filmmakers luxuriate in this irony, testing audience sympathy throughout. Eastwood’s affecting performance as Earl distracts from the immoral decisions the character makes—one shares in Earl’s willed ignorance of the cartel’s brutality, excusing it on the grounds that he uses his dirty money to perform such nice acts.

As always, Eastwood’s directorial style is plainspoken and elegant in the tradition of such old Hollywood masters as John Ford and Howard Hawks. He presents the complexities of Schenk’s script with a straight face, allowing them to simmer until they become unavoidable. The Mule ironically suggests that it might take criminal wrongdoing to fix pervasive social ills, as Earl uses his loot to repair his broken family bonds as well as a crumbling social institution that his community can no longer support. And for most of the running time, Eastwood and Schenk inspire plenty of good cheer with this premise. Earl’s friendly relationships with the people he meets (even testy cartel members) provide a source of unaccountably genial humor, while his attempts to patch things up with his daughter and ex-wife make for warm (though characteristically underplayed) drama. It’s only in the final half hour that the film’s darkness catches up with you, when the cartel’s brutality becomes too severe to ignore and Earl must face the consequences of his crimes. Yet the film manages to conclude on an optimistic note, suggesting that Earl will never suffer too much for what he’s done.

For decades now, Eastwood has been one of the great interrogators of American social mores, using cinema to question the myths of artistic infallibility (Bird; White Hunter, Black Heart), the government’s promise to act in our best interests (Flags of Our Fathers, J. Edgar), the glory of technological progress (Sully), and the valor of machismo (pretty much everything from White Hunter on). With The Mule, he questions the moral rectitude of the war on drugs, presenting drug running as an unlikely panacea to a broken society. This premise speaks to how entrenched the illegal drug trade is in American life, not to mention the failure of various social institutions. Yet Eastwood ameliorates the film’s cynicism with unflagging sympathy for its characters, and in doing so advances a winning sense of community. The moral conflict of The Mule feels far more constructive than the easy alienation of Vox Lux—it encourages us to wrestle with our thoughts and find new insights.   v