No, it’s not a revisionist version of Francis the talking donkey or a feature for the Animal Planet channel. In today’s criminal underworld, a mule is something much more sinister, dangerous and powerful than any slow-witted creature with a mere four legs—not a drug dealer, but a drug mover, carrier and transporter who carries the stuff across borders to market for big profits. Mules are usually young, dumb, broke, and not afraid of life behind bars if they get caught.
In The Mule, the criminal in focus is a different kind of reprobate—an octogenarian horticulturist from Peoria, Illinois named Earl Stone who does it for kicks, working for a drug cartel that considers him a safe risk—until he isn’t. As Earl, Clint Eastwood is so believable and such a charming curmudgeon that when the cops from the Federal Drug Administration led by Bradley Cooper turn the tables, you don’t want them to.
THE MULE ★★★
Part of the new trend to turn crooks into folks you’d really like to know, Eastwood follows in the footsteps of Robert Redford’s aging, fun-loving bank robber in The Old Man and the Gun. You want them to succeed, and you regret it when they don’t. Relinquishing his usual role as a movie hero of epic proportions, a gnawing question comes to mind: why would Clint Eastwood choose to play a master criminal distributing controlled substances contributing to the current epidemic in the war against drugs? Moral question aside, by the time Earl sees the error of his ways, it’s too late for any rational justification, but The Mule is so interesting and well-made that you might not care about the answer.
There’s nothing heroic about Earl, but in Eastwood’s 38th film as a director, he makes the character a felonious centerpiece as likable as anyone could ever imagine. Earl begins innocently enough, following a tip from a member of his granddaughter’s wedding party about a well-paying job as a truck driver. Earl has devoted most of his adult life to cultivating prize daylilies, which he has shipped from state to state in the back of his beat-up pickup truck.
So after his business is ruined by online internet sales and closed down in a bank foreclosure, he naively accepts the job driving a different load of merchandise. With a clean criminal record, and no moving offenses or traffic tickets, it doesn’t take long to figure out why he’s considered such a valuable driver to the gang of latino thugs who operate their business out of a battered garage. Earl, to the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel, is a godsend. The drug lords, to Earl, are a source of money so easy and fast that by his eighth run, he’s already made enough money to grow more lilies, buy a sparkling new truck, and begin the repairs to clean up the debris of his family life.
His resentful ex-wife (another solid performance by Diane Wiest) can’t forgive him for a wasted ten-year marriage, when he spent more time and money on his flower farm than his wife and children. His estranged daughter (Alison Eastwood) hasn’t spoken to him since the year he failed to show up for her wedding. And the granddaughter (Tessa Farmiga) who loves him unconditionally, overlooking his sins, has finally come close to throwing in the towel for any hope of rehabilitating him. The movie’s end zone, when he repents and all is forgiven, is not convincing.
Most of Nick Schenk’s screenplay is an entertaining mixture of comedy and drama devoted to making us like good old Earl for the hard-shelled country cracker-barrel philosopher he is (the whole movie is based on the true story of a 90-year-old drug mule as reported in The New York Times). So we watch him drinking beer and wolfing down pulled pork barbecue, and sharing his bed with two prostitutes at a time provided by the cartel boss (Andy Garcia). We travel on the road with Earl in the driver’s seat, singing along with pop tunes on the truck radio. And along the way to deliver hundreds of kilos of cocaine worth billions of dollars, he displays both a working knowledge of Spanish that prevents the latinos from taking advantage of him and a profound ignorance of the political awareness that has changed the world around him when he wasn’t looking.
In one brief scene, he stops to change a flat tire for a black couple that resents his using the word “Negro.” In another, he encounters a tough gang of lesbian motorcyclists called “Dykes on Bikes” who correct him when he greets them as “Ladies.” With his hunched shoulders, cobbled walk and decimated cowboy hat adding color to his distrust of cell phones, computers, text messages and every other aspect of modern technology that make it difficult and challenging to adjust to a digital world, Earl is a perfect role for Eastwood. He is so successful at reducing the cloak and dagger stuff to a realistic human level that when Bradley Cooper’s federal law enforcement agent finally catches his mule, regrets are palpable. Finally, I’m not sure what the point of the movie is, but we don’t want to see Clint Eastwood in handcuffs—and neither does he.