By Liam Lacey
Certainly, there's no one except Eastwood who could both star in and direct this same film.
The script is by Nick Schenk, who also wrote Eastwood’s Gran Torino, and is based on a 2017 New York Times story entitled “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule”, about Leo Sharp, a Second World War veteran. The film is entertaining for what it is, which is essentially a sentimental comedy about old age, with a lot of driving involved (and sing-along road songs on the radio).
Overall, it’s less resonant than David Lynch’s The Straight Story or Alexander Payne's Nebraska, but definitely better than Dirty Grandpa. Within that framework, it touches on some deeper currents of regret and social alienation in the digital age without risking undue seriousness.
While the character of Earl Stone is a more gregarious guy than Eastwood's cranky old man in Gran Torino (released a decade ago), they’re cut from a similar non-conformist cloth. We first see Stone (Eastwood) in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois in 2005, working in his garden wearing a feminine looking sunhat, tending his daylilies in his garden.
Later, he spiffs up good in a bowtie and seer-sucker jacket to attend a National Daylily Convention. There, he insults a colleague, flirts with some ladies of his own vintage and growls about a guy in a booth showing how easy it will soon be to order plants from the Internet.
Later that night, when Earl is standing the crowd to a drink at the bar after winning an award, he dimly recalls he was supposed to be at the wedding of his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood). As his ex-wife, Mary (Dianne Wiest), still holding a torch and a grudge, tells the distraught bride, Earle always put work and his ego ahead of family and she should never expect any different.
Cut to a decade later. While Earle doesn't look any different, his world has been turned upside down: That damned Internet has taken over the plant delivery business. Earl's farm is facing foreclosure and he's broke. By chance, he's offered a job to drive to El Paso and make a delivery of a duffle bag. Obviously, the big Mexican guys with tattoos and automatic rifles aren't working for FedEx, but as long as Earl doesn't look in the bag, he can live in denial and get a sweet good deal. He parks the truck in a motel parking lot with the keys in the glove compartment and disappears for an hour. When he returns, an envelope of cash is waiting for him.
Meanwhile, federal agents are trying to crack down on the drug-running in the Chicago area. The DEA agent in charge (Laurence Fishburne) brings in Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) who teams with local Hispanic agent (Michael Peña).
Because Eastwood's star brand is political-incorrectness, we see the amiable Earl is regularly putting his foot in it. He tells a stranded black family on the roadside that that he likes to help "Negroes.” They accept his assistance, but correct him on his racism and outdated language.
Similarly, when he calls a lesbian motorcycle gang of self-styled Dykes on Bikes, "gals,” they also correct his vocabulary in a friendly manner. Otherwise, Earl does a lot of raging about young people having their noses stuck in their smart phones, and tells the work-obsessed Hispanic gangsters they need to loosen up and have more fun, the way he does.
Not all of this is in jest. Earl's references to Mexicans as "beaners", or a crack about how all the cartel big tatoo'd Mexican gangsters look the same to him, are deliberately more complicated.
Earl is a semi-comic cultural dinosaur, but the film's perspective is, self-consciously, more progressive: In an awkward scene, the DEA agents pull over a car and arrest a tan-skinned man in a straw hat at gunpoint. The man gives a long nervous speech about how this is the most dangerous 15 minutes of his life and he doesn't want to be shot. When the Hispanic agent speaks to him in Spanish, he quickly says he doesn't speak the language. As it happens, the cops listen with calm patience as the man, at gunpoint, keeps talking. Take from it what you will.
Meanwhile Earl, who the DEA agents have unwittingly met and overlooked, is doing better and better. He reopens a friend's bar that was ruined by fire and, through his gifts, starts to be slightly more appreciated by his estranged family.
As well, his status as a top drug mule earns him a free trip to Mexico to meet the convivial cartel boss, Laton (Andy Garcia). Earl is wined, dined and given a couple of young women for the night, a cringe-worthy bit which suggests illicit drug-dealing must be pure boner medicine.
Things change abruptly again when Laton is forcefully replaced by a more brutal, and punctuality-obsessed cartel boss. The DEA, under pressure for not enough busts, is finally closing in, using air surveillance, wire taps and an informant. But they don't really get a breakthrough until Earle's ex, Mary, becomes gravely ill and Earl goes AWOL. Earl has finally realized, a few decades late, that he was wrong in his life choices: "I thought it was more important to be somebody out there," he says, than to care for his family.
Admittedly, the "family matters" message is complicated by the idea that he helped mess up a lot of other families, on both sides of the Rio Grande, by being party to the illegal cocaine business. But the movie doesn’t go there.
Thematic issues aside, Eastwood is noted for a high level of economic craft and The Mule is no exception. Visually, the film looks great with Canadian cinematographer Yves Belanger (Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild and HBO series, Big Little Lies), capturing the vast web of highways, roadside motels and scattered lives across fly-over America. Similarly, the soundtrack hits on plausible and infectious oldies of romance and freedom -- Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” Roger Miller’s “Dang Me,” Dean Martin’s “Aint’ That a Kick in the Head” and “More Today than Yesterday” (two versions), -- to which Earl sings along. The appeal here is more about freedom than the satisfactions of responsibility, though The Mule mostly manages to have it both ways.
The Mule. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Nick Schenk. Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, Dianne Wiest, Alison Eastwood. The Mule can be seen at the Silvercity Yonge-Eglinton, The Cineplex Varsity, The Scotiabank Theatre and The Silvercity Yorkdale.