When The Mule begins, Clint Eastwood’s Earl Stone is a 78-year-old horticulturist who is living relatively well: His flower farm business is thriving, he’s getting an award at a convention for being the best daily grower, and he’s got plenty of friends and enough money to buy everyone at the crowded bar a drink. Things aren’t quite so well with his family though. As he is on the road for his job a lot, he is not there to even walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding.
Flash forward 12 years and things are quite different for the now 90-year-old Earl: the internet has killed his flower business, the bank is foreclosing on his house, and he’s packed all his belongings into the back of his pick-up, which he drives to the engagement party of his granddaughter. Although she loves him, relations with his daughter and ex-wife are still volatile–but it’s at that party that Earl meets a man who changes the course of his life.
That man, sensing that Earl needs a job and hearing him talk about his spotless driving record, puts the old fellow in touch with members of a drug cartel transporting cocaine up from Mexico and across the U.S. They hire old Earl as a driver, and due to his need for cash he is all too happy to take the gig, especially if it can help him rebuild a shattered relationship with his family.
Played by an 88-year-old Eastwood, appearing onscreen for the first time in six years and directing himself in this low-key but curiously affecting tale. The Mule is based on the true story of Leo Sharp, who transported untold thousands of kilos of coke for the Sinaloa cartel well into his 80s. In the story of Sharp, Eastwood (aided by screenwriter Nick Schenk, who wrote Gran Torino for the filmmaker) perhaps sees something of himself: an aging white male with certain views of the world who is forced to recognize that that world is passing him by.
What might make The Mule–which is not the thriller that the trailers have painted it as, but a more wistful and even humorous character study–problematic is that Eastwood and the film refuse to pass judgment on Earl. He does take the job as drug runner out of desperation, but does he ever stop to consider the ramifications of helping to facilitate the destructive effects of the drug trade?
If so, we never know about it. Instead we see this still-randy nonagenarian partying with ripe, bikini-clad women (in a scene that’s a little hard to unsee) at the palatial home of the cartel kingpin, Laton (Andy Garcia). The latter flies Earl down to Mexico so he can get a close look at the old man who drives his handlers nuts with unplanned stops but still manages to get himself out of a couple of close scrapes with the cops. Earl responds by being the life of the party.
Earl is not exactly a full-blown racist, but he’s nowhere near Woke either. He stops to help a black couple change their tire and refers to them as “negroes,” much to their astonishment, and also mentions how all the cartel operatives “look the same.” There’s also a weird scene where he briefly interacts with a lesbian motorcycle club called Dykes on Bikes. Some of this is done with a kind of jauntiness that’s unsettling, as if Eastwood is trying to say, sure, this guy (and by proxy Eastwood) is politically incorrect, but he’s 90 years old so what the hell are you gonna do about it?
Racism comes in all forms too: The DEA agent (Bradley Cooper) in charge of taking down the cartel and finding “Tata” (Grandpa), pulls over a terrified Latino driver purely because of the way he looks. “I don’t speak Spanish!” he cries when another agent (Michael Peña) tries to calm him in what he assumes is the man’s native tongue. Meanwhile the would-be suspect rapidly spouts statistics about how the five minutes during which he’s been pulled over are the most dangerous of his life.
It’s a bracing scene, but Eastwood and Schenk just leave it there with all its implications left unsaid after that. That’s what makes The Mule, in many ways, the best film Eastwood has done in years. His last two, The 15:17 to Paris and Sully, tried to stretch brief if powerfully heroic events into feature-length narratives that they didn’t require, while American Sniper was too dependent on not understanding the context of America’s most recent military adventures so that it could celebrate the life of a stone cold killer. The Mule is more ambiguous, making it more challenging.
At times the film does cry out for some sort of moral compass, and although there’s a strong cast in place Eastwood does little with them. Dianne Wiest is best as his ex, who has managed to get by on her own terms but also gradually lays down her anger at Earl as time starts to close in on them. A climactic scene they have together is genuinely touching. But Taissa Farmiga and Alison Eastwood as his granddaughter and daughter, respectively, are defined solely by the former’s affection and the latter’s fury. Cooper can’t help but be solid, although his Colin Bates, who is missing out on his own family life and gets lectured on it by Earl in a meet-cute diner scene, is also more of a cypher than a real person.
The Mule is ultimately Eastwood’s show: He directs it cleanly and without clutter, keeping the story mostly focused and well-paced. And if for any reason this turns out to be his last screen performance, he’s going out on a strong note. Yes, Earl is an enigma in some ways, and not always likable, but he refuses to give up his basic desire to enjoy living even as the life he knew fades away. Unlike a lot of white males who have enjoyed the privileges of race and gender for so long, he’s not necessarily angry; he’s just going to do what he must to keep himself going. We can all relate to that to some degree, and perhaps Eastwood unexpectedly finds himself relating to it the most.
The Mule is out in theaters on Friday, Dec. 14.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye