When Clint Eastwood stands in front of the camera, it’s an event. He’s one of the last living screen legends, but he rarely acts anymore, content to direct movie after movie well into his 80s, in addition to producing and even scoring them. But he’s once again leading a film’s cast, stretching his talents by playing a bit against type. And it pays off; The Mule is a melancholy meditation on regret for a life wasted and seizing one last, desperate chance to make up for past sins.
Based on a New York Times article, Earl Stone (Eastwood) is an elderly horticulturist whose business has taken a turn for the worse in the wake of the internet boom. Faced with financial ruin and a neglected family that wants nothing to do with him, Earl snatches an opportunity to work as a drug mule for a Mexican cartel, ferrying cocaine from Texas to Illinois in his truck. Meanwhile, gung-ho DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) investigates Earl’s new employers, getting ever closer to the elusive mule who’s become an integral part of the cartel’s business.
Eastwood’s character in The Mule is not what you’d expect when you read the synopsis. Earl Stone is an amiable guy, joking around with everyone he meets, loving nothing more than to make new pals (not friends, necessarily, but pals). In the opening moments, when he’s got a thriving business, he wears a goofy suit and pals around with colleagues at a convention. He ribs the men just enough to be funny and flirts with the women just enough to be charming, and he plays the press like a fiddle as well. He goofs around with his employees, making racial jokes that they laugh at and throw back at him. This disposition remains when his business crumbles; Earl pays his departing workers their last wage and is genuinely sorry he can’t give them more. One person even jokes that Earl doesn’t initially strike him as Jimmy Stewart, as much a comment on Eastwood as his main character.
With Earl, Eastwood seems to be inviting comparison to Walt Kowalski, his character in Gran Torino; both are anachronisms, old men who refuse to change with the times. But while Walt was combative, Earl is friendly, and where Walt was angry, Earl is just sad. There’s a dark side to guys like Earl, who love to pal around and hang with the fellas: they often do so to the detriment of their own family. Earl certainly did; he spent his life on the road most of the year selling his flowers, and when he was home he was tending his garden while his wife and daughter yearned for his presence. Now, his business is gone as quickly as he started it, and the family he shunned isn’t there anymore. He’s losing his house to the bank, but he has no one who will take him in. When serendipity strikes at his granddaughter’s engagement party in the form of a guest connected with the cartel (which isn’t an accident; she is the manifestation of his second chance to do right by his family, as his work as a mule is his literal second chance), Earl suddenly sees a life raft, an opportunity to finally do it right.
Eastwood is outstanding as Earl. He’s as likable as a guy like Earl has to be, someone we’d want to meet in our travels. In fact, The Mule is full of characters like that. This movie is garnering a lot of talk for its refusal to be politically correct (and thank God for Clint Eastwood on that score), but it isn’t done solely to poke a finger in the eye of the modern-day pearl clutchers. Eastwood is making a point about how regular people relate to each other; they take a joke and deal one right back. Earl isn’t out to hurt anybody, and everyone who comes across him knows that just from his attitude. His disdain for the internet and the addiction to cell phones is tied into this; the internet literally destroys his career, as it would to a guy like Earl in real life if he ever got caught making one of his jokes. All of his meaningful encounters in The Mule are made by just talking to people one-on-one, being human. Earl may be part a dying breed, but the younger folks he meets seem to like his way just fine.
Other than Eastwood, Diane Wiest is tragic as Earl’s heartbroken ex-wife, angry with her absent former husband but wishing things could have been different. Taissa Farmiga is effortlessly charming as Earl’s granddaughter, so wide-eyed and hopeful that her grandpa isn’t the man she was told he was all her life, and you desperately hope Earl finally gets the family thing right for her. Allison Eastwood (Clint’s real-life daughter, who’s acted in several of his films) walks a precarious tightrope as daughter Iris; she’s been legitimately hurt by Earl, but she does some hurtful things herself in retribution, and not to her father. Iris has to go from pitiable to petulant to several other places, and Allison Eastwood hits every note. Bradley Cooper is very much a more traditional Eastwood type, which is essential to their interactions in The Mule, and Cooper fills the role admirably. He’s tough but cool, friendly with his colleagues and scary when intimidating drug dealers. Laurence Fishburne plays Cooper’s boss, so he’s pretty much there to be Laurence Fishburne; ditto Michael Peña as Cooper’s partner. Andy Garcia has a great time as the friendliest drug lord on Earth. And Ignacio Serricchio has a nice arc as a cartel member.
Well, he almost does, and that’s the biggest fault of The Mule: it ends rather abruptly, and some of the storylines feel unfinished. Arcs are abandoned, seemingly important plot points go nowhere, and you’re left wishing for another ten or twenty minutes in which to tie things up. While Earl’s story comes to a logical conclusion, almost everyone else is left twisting in the wind. It’s an unfortunate note on which to leave an otherwise stellar movie. Everything else works. The filmmaking is classic Eastwood, laid back and economical, with some small-town American images contrasting nicely with the drug running and complimenting the regular-folk characters. The soundtrack is just right too, with lots of golden oldies for Earl to sing along with. The music is an extension of Earl and his old-fashioned personality, jarring for the younger people at first, but slowly growing on them.
The Mule is another winner for Eastwood. Not only has he put together a thoughtful, poignant movie, but he gives another wonderful performance. The ending comes too suddenly, and there are too many characters and plot points that don’t pan out, but everything else about The Mule is splendid. I sincerely hope this isn’t Eastwood’s acting swan song, but if it is, it’s not a bad one on which to hang his hat.