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Screen Themes: Green Book vs The Mule

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It’s time to take this show on the road as entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out a couple of high quality road movies, the Oscar-nominated Green Book and Clint Eastwood-directed The Mule.

Green Book

Directed by Peter Farrelly (2019)

Set in 1962 and based on a true story, Green Book tells the story of nightclub bouncer Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a man of grand appetites for both food and violence and his relationship with Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a classically trained concert pianist. What brings them together is the Doctor’s plan to tour the Southern states of the USA, despite the prevalent racism of the era. The Green Book of the title is the Negro Traveler's Green Book, a travel guide to the South detailing where people of colour are welcome.

Having got his start in TV series including Crossing Jordan, CSI and NYPD Blue, Mahershala Ali’s star has skyrocketed over the past couple of years, driven by standout roles in Moonlight, Hidden Figures and House of Cards. He is magnetic as Dr Don Shirley, a deeply conflicted man struggling to make a difference in a society that barely views him as human. In his first meeting with Tony, Shirley tries to establish his superiority, wearing elaborate robes and seated on a literal throne, but his actions hide a deep fear of rejection and desire to be accepted.

If Dr Shirley is sophisticated (and he is), then Tony “Lip” Vallelonga is equally cultured, but in an entirely different way. Eating almost constantly, Viggo Mortenson is delightful as the occasionally boorish but exceptionally good-natured Tony, growing closer to Dr Shirley as he becomes as much a protector and big brother as he is a driver. In a year marked by a number of standout acting performances (Christian Bale in Vice, Olivia Coleman in The Favourite, Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody), it’s notable that both of the leads in Green Book attracted Oscar nominations. 

Some critics have argued that Green Book is predictable and shies away from confrontation at every turn (in marked contrast to fellow Oscar nominee BlackKklansman), neither of which are entirely inaccurate. This is not really a movie about race relations, but more of a slightly sophisticated buddy comedy and a hell of a lot of fun at that.

The Mule

Directed by Clint Eastwood (2019)

At 88 years old, writer/director Clint Eastwood no longer looks like the toughest guy in the room, but he still retains a shadow of his iron will, glimpsed occasionally (and to great effect) through the leisurely journey that is The Mule. Clint plays Earl Stone, an ageing horticulturalist with a frayed relationship with his family. In an effort to make money to help out his grandchildren, Earl agrees to become a drug mule for a Mexican cartel.

Eastwood is in almost every scene in The Mule, driving long distances across stunning landscapes, at first in his old truck, then in a brand new one, funded by the profits of his drug-running. Earl is most at home when he’s on the road, evidenced by the halting steps he takes to try to reconnect with his family, played by Dianne Wiest (as ex-wife Mary) and real-life daughter Alison Eastwood as on-screen daughter Iris.

While The Mule is indisputably Clint’s movie, it has a decent supporting cast, most of whom don’t have very much to do. Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña play a pair of DEA agents trying to take down the cartel, while Laurence Fishburne plays their boss in a role that would have been clichéd if not played by an actor of Fishburne’s gravitas. Dianne Wiest brings a touching vulnerability to her portrayal of Mary, while Alison Eastwood is superb as the daughter determined never to forgive her father for his misdeeds.

Thematically, The Mule bears some resemblance to Thelma & Louise, with both films revelling in a sense of the inevitability of doom. Ultimately, The Mule continues the path that Clint has walked with films like Gran Torino, telling the story of a man from a different era trying to find his place in the modern world.

The Verdict

While Green Book owes a debt to road movies like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the whole production has an air of sophistication that elevates it above the competition. The performances of Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortenson are career-defining and there seems little doubt that the movie will walk away with at least a couple of Oscars this week.

If you’re a fan of Clint Eastwood as an action star, The Mule might be a little disappointing, as Clint’s body count parallels The Bridges of Madison County. Fans of Eastwood as a director, however, will find much to like about The Mule.

Green Book: 9/10

The Mule: 7/10

Books by John Turnbull are available on Amazon and Kindle, including supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame; action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: EuropeDamnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in paperback in the IA store HERE (free postage).

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