Both tender apologia and vigorous justification, Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule” is a deeply, fascinatingly meditation from the 88-year-old director who, like his aged drug mule protagonist, has spent a long time on the road.
“The Mule” is Eastwood’s second film this year, following “The 15:17 to Paris,” a distinctly undramatic dramatization of the thwarted 2015 train attack. Eastwood isn’t playing himself in “The Mule,” but it’s hard not to appreciate, and be moved by, the film’s many echoes of the filmmaker, who’s acting in one of his own for the first time since 2008’s “Gran Torino.”
That he finds such intimate dimensions in the story of Leo Sharp is a testament to Eastwood’s knack for pared-down elegy and to the lean script by Twin Cities native Nick Schenk.
Sharp was arrested at age 87 with 104 kilos of cocaine in the back of his pickup while en route to Detroit. But Sharp was among the most prolific regional smugglers for the Sinaloa cartel. The hard-to-believe tale was recounted by the New York Times’ Sam Dolnick, an article that’s been adapted here.
“The Mule” takes plenty of liberties with Sharp’s story, but it reverberates with Eastwood’s own mythology in intriguing, if sometimes awkward ways.
Eastwood’s Earl Stone is a celebrated horticulturalist whose specialty is a fragile daylily that blooms for 24 hours a year. Early in the film, we see Stone dressed in a seersucker suit, dishing out jokes while being fawned over by fans. But Stone’s lily farm runs into hard times. Doling out cash to his Hispanic workers, he mutters, “Damned internet. It ruins everything.”
Like “Gran Torino” (also penned by Schenk) there are plenty of such old-man lines. We learn that Stone has long been estranged from his bitter ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) and his equally furious daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood, the director’s daughter), though his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) has kept the faith.
To help pay for Ginny’s wedding, Stone follows a tip that leads him to a nondescript auto shop, where cartel members put a bag of drugs in his beat-up Ford pickup, hand him a phone and tell him to respond to any call or text. (“Text?” he replies.) After reaching his destination, Stone finds a wad of cash in the glove compartment.
More trips and more kilos follow. But the legend of the smuggler known as “Tata” (grandpa) grows, attracting the attention of the cartel kingpin (Andy Garcia). At the same time, a DEA investigation (Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena co-star as agents) is closing in.
Baked into “The Mule” is a sense of changing America squeezing out the regular Joe. Stone has occasional encounters — giving a repair suggestion to a lesbian biker, fixing a tire for a couple he refers to as “Negroes” — that seem intended to show he’s a good ol’ guy, even if he doesn’t know the politically correct lingo. “The Mule” isn’t unconcerned with racism, but these scenes are really just for a laugh.
And yet there’s still a potent, classically Eastwood parable here about eking out a little bit of freedom in an America that seems to always be tightening the noose. Even the low-level cartel guys get a new, unforgiving boss.
And as “The Mule” ambles toward its conclusion, it draws closer to Stone, and maybe to Eastwood’s legacy. Much of the movie measures temporary pleasures (from a motel threesome to the fleeting bloom of a lily) with long-term guilt. When Stone makes a reckoning with his ex-wife and daughter (Eastwood’s late scenes with Wiest are the best in the film), it’s hard not to wonder if Eastwood is channeling his own misgivings over a nonstop career. “I thought it was more important to be somebody out there,” says Stone, “than a damned failure in my own home.”