Clint Eastwood is not a Catholic (not even especially religious), although his Gran Torino (2008) – in which he was both star and director – was a very Catholic film: Catholic characters in a tale of Christ-like self-sacrifice. Eastwood’s latest film, The Mule, is another contemporary tale about self-sacrifice, although with only the slightest hint of Christian sensibility.
Earl Stone (Mr. Eastwood) is 90 and has made his living and reputation raising daylilies, which he did with passionate expertise. But he ignored his (now ex-) wife Mary (Dianne Wiest in a fine performance), his estranged daughter Lily (Alison Eastwood, Clint’s real-life daughter), and his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga, the 21-years-younger sister of Vera). Mary says Earl loved the lilies, and “the flowers deserved it. But so did your family.”
As was the case with Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino, Stone is basically a bitter, bigoted old man, whose unpleasantness is almost entirely of his own making, although Earl snarls less than Walt. If either character has a redeeming quality, it’s that he’s a combat veteran. At this point in his career, Mr. Eastwood has no trouble playing with conviction a guy who has seen enough of life not to fear death very much, and who, therefore, is willing to take risks.
In Earl Stone’s case, our “hero” has found a second career as a “mule”: a courier who transports drugs from place to place for a cartel, the one in Sinaloa, Mexico run by a man named Laton (Andy Garcia). In the jumble of the old man’s brain, Earl is doing it for his family – to provide them with some financial support, even though he rarely sees them, for the very good reason that they want no part of him. He has missed every birthday, anniversary, and wedding.
And here’s the thing: in spite of themselves, people seem to like Earl. His granddaughter does. The drug dealers do. His buddies at the VFW hall do. And so do the two hookers he brings into his motel room during a stopover on one of his drug smuggling trips and the two others who romance him at Laton’s hacienda.
Indeed, at various points in the film Earl Stone dances with and has sex with much younger women (never explicitly shown, save for flashes of breasts and bottoms). Perhaps this is because Earl exudes a kind of experience the young criminales, who handle Earl along the way, just can’t match. Or maybe it’s an expression – conscious or subconscious – of Mr. Eastwood’s own fear of impending death, manifest in a desire to be again recklessly young and sinful.
Meanwhile, the DEA is on Earl’s trail – specifically Agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Peña). And the agents have their counterparts in two cartel enforcers, Julio (Ignacio Serrichio) and Rico (Victor Rasuk). These are all serious customers played partly for laughs.
In one way and another they come under the spell of Earl’s old-fashioned goofiness. The cartel boys have bugged his SUV and hear him singing along to Dean Martin’s “Ain’t that a Kick in the Head?” (How lucky can one guy be . . .) At first, they’re aggravated; then they’re crooning along with him. As a director, Mr. Eastwood knows how to coax out subtle performances. Messrs. Cooper and Peña are two of the busiest stars in Hollywood, and it’s a testimony to Eastwood that A-list actors are content to play minor roles in his films.
Eastwood’s own performance is plenty subtle, at times even sleepy. He’s 6’4” but has developed a slouch over the years that he uses to good advantage here. Sometimes he seems to shrivel; at other times he swells. Sometimes he almost shows the icy-eyed look of Dirty Harry; more usually he has the expression of an elderly man fading into dementia.
The trouble with The Mule is its failure to explain why Earl (the drug dealers call him Tata) ever took the damnable job in the first place. He just falls into it, and the bad guys love him because he drives at the speed limit and doesn’t ask questions.
But the movie is based upon a real-life octogenarian mule, and it’s reasonably clear why he decided to dance with the devil.
The man was Leonard “Leo” Sharp, who eluded law enforcement for a decade until he was arrested at the age of 87. During the time he was a mule, he trafficked (literally) tens of millions of dollars’ worth of “blow.” Sam Dolnick wrote a long story about Sharp for the New York Times Magazine that forms the basis for The Mule screenplay by Nick Schenk, and in that article prosecutors succinctly explain Sharp’s motive: “(1) he saw nothing wrong with the trafficking of cocaine and (2) greed.”
Perhaps Eastwood figured the character of Earl Stone would be unappealing to audiences if presented as the miserable s-o-b Leo Sharp really was. So, the family dynamic – which played no role in Leo Sharp’s story – is invented in The Mule both to first establish Earl Stone’s selfishness but then to humanize him, even though he’s basically buying his way back into his family’s good graces.
The film ends with Earl Stone rejecting his lawyer’s diminished-capacity defense and pleading guilty. Leo Sharp did plead guilty but with the excuse (considered laughable by the DEA and the prosecutors) of dementia.
He was sentenced to three years in a federal prison; he served one.
As did Leo Sharp in his life as a drug courier, The Mule entirely and callously ignores the horror and heartache of the drug users whose lives were wrecked by cocaine addiction. Still, Mr. Eastwood’s immoral tale is fun to watch.
How lucky can one guy be?
The Mule is rated R for some violence and brief nudity and lots of F- and S-bombs. The cast includes Lawrence Fishburne as the DEA boss and convincing performances by actors portraying cartel members, including Clifton Collins Jr., Robert LaSardo, Manny Montana, Lobo Sebastian, and Eugene Cordero as an informant handled by the DEA.