Earl Stone, a 90-year-old horticulture enthusiast and Korean War veteran played by Clint Eastwood, has spent his entire life growing award-winning daylilies and attending career social functions at the expense of his responsibilities to his family. He is now barely on speaking terms with his ex-wife and his daughter, played respectively by Dianne Wiest and Alison Eastwood, and his belated attempts to mend the divide between them by promising to contribute to the wedding of his granddaughter, played by Taissa Farmiga, are greeted with disdain, especially when, after a foreclosure on his small-town Illinois home, he shows up at an engagement reception with a truck bed full of his possessions.
Stone's low-key casualness and his lifelong perfect driving record, however, catch the attention of an unlikely benefactor, and he is quickly hired “just to drive” to El Paso to make a delivery. His seemingly accidental entry into employment for a Mexican drug cartel is soon yielding big dividends as he successfully transports record loads of drugs across state lines, all the while bewildering and frustrating his dangerous employers with his penchant for stopping along each route to help stranded motorists or to enjoy favorite pulled pork restaurants. He finances his granddaughter's wedding expenses, he moves back into his house, and he even rescues a local VFW hall from extinction. Meanwhile, El Paso Drug Enforcement Administration agents, played by Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña, and Laurence Fishburne, are clamping down on the local cartel operations and are eventually clued into the existence of this mysterious and unidentified drug runner.
In the 2018 crime drama, The Mule, which is loosely based on the true story of Leo Sharp, an elderly man who was arrested in 2011 while transporting drugs for the Sinaloa Cartel, Eastwood pulls double duty in front of the camera and behind the camera for the first time in a decade. Like his last actor/director undertaking, Gran Torino (2008), this feature was penned just for him by screenwriter Nick Schenk.
At the age of 88, Eastwood is frailer in appearance, lacking the formidably chiseled action physique that served as his trademark all the way up through his last acting role six years ago in Trouble with the Curve, but his endearing devil-may-care style of social graces, his piercing eyes, and his talent for showing the vulnerable side of stereotypical cinematic masculinity still shine through at their best. More importantly, his serviceable no-frills brand of direction and storytelling that has always lent a comfortable lived-in feel to his movies, even as far back as his 1970s releases, continues to reign supreme. A slow jazz music score by Arturo Sandoval and a handful of road trip radio gems from the likes of Willie Nelson and Dean Martin accentuate Eastwood's rural-tinged “Saturday afternoon Americana” aesthetic.
The Mule is a flawed film that wastes no time showing its weaknesses. Early scenes with Eastwood's Stone and his estranged family go overboard with expository detail about how he was never around for his loved ones years ago. Also, the scraggly political incorrectness of Eastwood's character that charmed audiences in Gran Torino 10 years ago does not fare nearly as well here. Scenes of a well-intended Stone obliviously making off-color remarks to lesbian motorcyclists and to a black family are amusing, but also awkward and out-of-touch in a way that took my mind out of the narrative, although I believe that these moments are part of the point, because they help to paint a picture of an anachronistic figure who would seem to be the least likely person in the world to bring millions of dollars of illegal drugs to various stops around the country. Finally, a couple of sequences in this movie go full-tilt Russ Meyer when it comes to shapely women being ogled by the camera, most notably when our aged protagonist is spending a party evening at the lavish home of a cartel leader, played wonderfully by Andy Garcia.
Longtime fans of Eastwood know what to expect, of course. This is not a class of life lessons on how to behave according to today's standards of political correctness. When you are watching one of this director's movies, you pour yourself a Scotch, you put your feet up on the coffee table, and you relax to tales of outwardly rugged men whose tough exteriors mask inner imperfections and insecurities.
In terms of the explorations of the contrast between mythological male bravado and inner soul-crushing turmoil that has always marked Eastwood's best works, The Mule excels. In fact, I believe that this may be Eastwood's most resonant and deeply personal movie since A Perfect World (1993). Like Eastwood's best directorial effort to date, Unforgiven (1992), this new movie also earns high marks by superimposing his interesting fictional lead character over his real-life career and cinematic past. The dialogue moments between Stone and his family, where both parties struggle to establish bridges over troubled waters, is given additional heft by the fact that Stone's daughter is played by Eastwood's real-life daughter. The reports of the death of Eastwood's 1970s-1980s romantic partner, Sondra Locke, which hit news media sources the night before I saw this film, also contribute unwitting gravitas to the final half hour of this movie.
Instead of pushing for an old-school conservative pep rally take on America, as many Eastwood detractors undoubtedly fear, The Mule works on a deeper level with complex observations about the “American Dream” and about the price of pursuing misplaced goals while neglecting life's true treasures. While watching the events in this movie unfold, I was reminded of a throwaway scene from the Extended Edition of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where Eli Wallach's Tuco ponders, “If you work for a living, why do you kill yourself working?” Earl Stone's determination to repair the damage inflicted on his family by his devotion to chasing the good life, a wish that ultimately places him at the mercy of diabolical cartel operatives, is the driving force that propels this often-riveting road adventure of a film. One of my favorite moments is a diner scene (actually a Waffle House scene, since this movie was filmed largely in Georgia), where Eastwood's character talks with Bradley Cooper's DEA agent about letting time with loved ones pass us by.
The Mule may not be perfect, but it is Eastwood's most emotionally yearning strive for perfection in a long while. More than anything, I love how this story took me to destinations and side roads that I did not expect, even when the side roads seemed unwelcome. Like one of Earl Stone's cartel “handlers” who are tasked with keeping him in line so that he can deliver kilos of drugs on time to a place many miles away, I ultimately settled into the groove and allowed Stone the indulgence of stopping at various sites during the trip. As with many of the masterpieces directed by Eastwood, the greatest wonders offered by this motion picture reside at those unplanned stops. I am praying that this movie is not his swan song in front of the camera, but, if so, then I am hard-pressed to imagine a better career summation. I'm going to give "The Mule" a 7 out of 10.