If Clint Eastwood’s own recent personal history wasn’t so steeped in botched political messages, I don’t think his films (with the obvious exception of American Sniper) would be so overly scrutinized as some sort of statement about his own beliefs. That being said, he seems to be on something of a tear lately looking for real-life heroes to put on the big screen in such works as Sniper, Sully, and the botched The 15:17 to Paris. Maybe Eastwood thinks the artificiality of superhero movies should somehow be countered with a dose of his version of reality. Still, despite Sully having some good moments, the filmmaker’s quest has been largely unsatisfying.
Which makes his decision to tell the story of Earl Stone all the more curious, and more importantly, interesting. The Mule is “inspired” by a New York Times Magazine article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year Old Drug Mule” by Sam Dolnick (and adapted by Nick Schenk) about one Leo Sharp, a somewhat famous and quite elderly horticulturist who became a drug mule for Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel for roughly 10 years while in his 80s and early 90s. It just so happens Schenk also penned Gran Torino, the 2008 Clint Eastwood-directed work that marked the last time the actor appeared on screen in one of his own movies (his last actual acting role was in 2012’s Trouble with the Curve).
Eastwood’s Stone lives in Peoria and is recruited by the cartel because he’s down on his luck, loves to drive, has never gotten a parking ticket, and takes no chances in terms of his driving. More than anything, this World War II veteran is the last person the police or any drug enforcement agency would think might smuggle hundreds of thousands of dollars in cocaine per run to Michigan. And if this was all The Mule was about, it would be a pleasant distraction at best. But Eastwood and Schenk attempt to build a character study around Stone that paints him as a perfectionist when it comes to growing exotic flowers but a failure as a family man, with an ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) and grown daughter (played quite effectively by Clint’s real daughter Alison Eastwood) who can barely stand to look at him, let alone depend on him for anything.
But this portrait of Stone also includes his prejudices and his dated views on women, as well as his attempts at an advanced age to mend fences and be a better person when he realizes that the considerable money he makes as a drug courier has given him a second chance in many respects. Earl is what the kids call a “casual racist.” He doesn’t inherently dislike people of color, but he does have ideas about how they’re different than he is. He still finds ways to be charming and affable in their presence because that’s just how he is, and perhaps that’s Eastwood’s attempt to show that his character comes from a different era. But more often than not, it feels unnecessary. We don’t need to do anything beyond look at Eastwood’s face to know he’s old. That being said, there’s a scene where Stone runs into a group of lesbian bikers that is such classic, tone-deaf Eastwood that you can’t help but laugh.
For many, I’m guessing Stone’s shortcomings as a person, a husband and a father may make him (and possibly the film) irredeemable, and that would be a shame because there is a great deal here I found highly intriguing. Even more so, I think The Mule is Eastwood’s best film as a director since his Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima combo release. Taissa Farmiga shines as Stone’s granddaughter Ginny, who is the only one of the family that not only will still talk to him but also wants desperately to bring him back into the fold. He hasn’t really earned her unconditional love, but he’s grateful for what she does offer. Key moments in her life (beauty school graduation, her wedding) get his extra special attention, both in terms of his time and newfound money.
The DEA’s investigation into the Sinaloa cartel’s presence in the Midwest is handled almost matter-of-factly as a pair of agents (Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña), under the supervision of their boss (Laurence Fishburne) slowly track the path of the drugs from Mexico to Michigan, always seeming to miss Stone, or perhaps they look right through him. There’s one scene in which Cooper and Eastwood end up in a conversation at a diner that feels made up; even if it isn’t, that doesn’t stop it from being a nice moment between two men, the elder ironically giving advice on being a better husband.
I was also quite amused by the limited presence of Andy Garcia as the head of the cartel, who lives a little too high on the horse in the eyes of those around him, including a lieutenant played by Clifton Collins Jr. Garcia invites his top driver (nicknamed Tata—or grandfather—by the cartel) to his luxurious home, in a scene that could have easily been cut but gives the film some much-needed lighter moments before everything goes to hell.
Since we know Stone will eventually be caught, Eastwood is smart enough not to build too much artificial drama around his eventual capture. Instead, The Mule accentuates characters, relationships and the changing nature of the business of drug trafficking. If you can overlook a few questionable personality traits in Stone, the film is actually highly watchable, emotionally satisfying and quite funny at times, which is a welcome shift from a lot of what Eastwood has been dishing out lately. It’s not quite a return to form, but it’s a step in the right direction.
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