Synopsis – A 90-year-old horticulturist and Korean War veteran is caught transporting $3 million worth of cocaine through Illinois for a Mexican drug cartel.
My Take – Whether you love him or hate him, there is no denying that Clint Eastwood will always be considered as one of the most iconic figures of cinema history. His ability to keep directing films at the age of 88 is in itself an astonishing fact. While he gained fame in his earlier years by directing/starring in a series of westerns and dramatic thrillers, in his recent years thought, as a director Eastwood, he has largely been concerned with depicting different kinds of heroism.
A solid example could be any of his past three directorial efforts, American Sniper, Sully, and The 15:17 to Paris, which were quiet, plaintive portraits of ordinary folks elevated to iconic status due to their daring acts. However, as an actor Eastwood now days rarely appears on the screen, with this last two starring roles being Gran Torino (2008) and Trouble with the Curve (2012).
However, with film, his first starring role in seven years, Eastwood has embarked upon on one of the most adventurous, experimental, and prolific roles of his career, which may also act as the last time we see him on screen. If that’s the case, this is a perfect exit, understated perfection, with a playful hint of subverting his screen image.
While critics have been rather skeptical towards the film, which is based on the true story of Leo Sharp, which was chronicled in The New York Times by Sam Dolnick, anyone who has been a fan of Eastwood‘s work can appreciate this oddly endearing, kind of wonderful little picture. Sure, this film is far from his best, but it’s authentic enough to remind us how great of a performer and filmmaker Eastwood is and how much he loves cinema.
The story follows Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood), a Korean War veteran who’s drifting toward the end of things and he knows it. In his pursuit of being a successful horticulturist, he ended up failing his own family, as a result Mary (Dianne Wiest), his ex-wife hates him, and Iris (Alison Eastwood), his adult daughter refuses to stand in the same room with him. With his business/home now in the final stages of foreclosure, his relationship with Ginny (Taissa Farmiga), his granddaughter, seems to be the only bright thing in his screwed-up life.
But now short on cash, with his promise to help out Ginny in her wedding expenses looming over his head, Earl feels completely lost. That is until he is approached by a man at Ginny’s engagement party and offered to take on the job of a mule for Laton (Andy Garcia), a sinister Mexican drug cartel kingpin and his associates. As Earl has a clean record with no a single ticket to his name, and his old age acting as an important factor, he is nothing but perfect for the job, as all he has to do is drive from one point to another and get paid well.
While the first drive was initially meant to be a single trip, the amount of money he earns ends up helping him fulfill his needs and others who are close to him, as a result Earl decides to continue on. However, unknown to him, Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Peña), two DEA agents, who have been tracking Laton’s cartel, end up finding out about Tata, Earl’s nick name given by his handlers, a new player who has been transporting drugs through the heartland of the U.S. to Chicago and begin their search to unlock his identity.
Although he’s done well with other actors, Eastwood’s relaxed, non-fussy directorial style is, unsurprisingly, a perfect fit for his tenser but similarly non-fussy acting style. That’s more than evident in his newest film-star farewell. Here, Eastwood plays a different kind of cowboy, a renowned horticulturalist, King of the Day Lilies and the biggest swinging dick at the local flower show. He cracks Viagra jokes in a seersucker suit and tosses back Crown Royals, delighting in his hilariously meager rewards. Yet it feels like a throwback to another era. “Your generation can’t open a box of fruit without calling the internet,” he grumbles semi-incoherently to a younger man at one point; when asked by the cartel if he knows how to text, he replies only with a cocked eyebrow.
But plenty of Earl’s interests transcend his age. He’s fond of attention, a job well done, and the company of women (an 88-year-old Eastwood simulates having threesomes onscreen). Although this film covers a grim story, it has a light-hearted feel for many stretches and a refreshing sense of humor. In one of the film’s many bizarrely compelling exchanges of dialogue, Earl gets a cup of coffee with the man who’s chasing him, the Drug Enforcement Administration agent Colin Bates, and tells him to remember his and his wife’s anniversary.
It’s somewhat retrograde, it’s extremely trite, and yet, still, from Eastwood’s mouth it sounds practically like a confession of his own wandering ways through the years. Nick Schenk, who wrote the screenplay for Eastwood‘s 2008 hit Gran Torino, handles the screenwriting chores here; and while there are quite a few ethnic slurs and a certain amount of misogyny, the film in general is a deeply humanistic film about a totally inhumane situation in which Eastwood has to do the one thing that his most hard-edged fans sometimes have had a difficult time accepting, which is to show a lot of vulnerability.
Frequently, his character has guns pointed at him, as opposed to the other way around; and he can’t do a whole lot about that except to follow orders, even though he knows he’ll be going to jail for life (at the age of 90) if he’s caught. Also, while Eastwood has made plenty of intense thrillers in his day, this film is fairly laid-back. Even with a languid Cooper and a similarly relaxed Michael Peña as his partner, on Earl’s tail, the whole thing plays like a slow burn road film, trotting along to its sad but inevitable conclusion as Earl tries to make up for decades of neglect with wads of cash. The dusty cities and towns he’s driving through are casualties of the same tragic abandonment that his own family suffered. As a result, this film is as much a eulogy for a country that Eastwood sees as slowly crumbling as it is for the life Earl chose to lead. Eastwood also uses music to good effect, dropping in songs that propel the story.
He sings along with them, too, and uses their beat to key off his. And while many might find the film to be a touch offensive, ethnically speaking, it befits situations. Being a Korean War vet and codger-camp icon, in the film’s first line of dialogue, Earl roasts a Mexican-American friend with a deportation joke, Eastwood at once baiting some imagined PC-police audience and setting up his character as a man tragically out of time. Even though this kind of material is not always handled gracefully, the cartel guys are also ultimately not the real villains of the piece, as the film zeroes in on Earl’s late-breaking attempts to make things right with his family, more so than crime-picture showdowns.
As the lead, Clint Eastwood himself is charismatic as ever and absolutely compelling as an old man who suddenly finds himself awash in money from an illegal enterprise and seeing the world from a different angle; and he doesn’t let his charisma blur his character’s moral failings. In doing so, the film becomes a moving portrait of a man at the end of his life who decides he will finally accept responsibility for the choices he has made and the pain he has caused. Here, Eastwood reminds us how huge a screen presence he has no matter how old he gets.
Even though Bradley Cooper gets second billing, he’s not in the film that much, but nevertheless puts in an extremely credible performance as the DEA agent, as does Michael Peña as his partner. Dianne Weist offers a sympathetic turn as Stone’s long-suffering ex-wife, while Andy Garcia is good fun as the drug lord who is pleased with the old mercenary’s hard work. In smaller roles, Laurence Fishburne, Alison Eastwood (Eastwood‘s real-life daughter) and Taissa Farmiga are also solid. On the whole, ‘The Mule’ is yet another compelling addition to Clint Eastwood‘s long filmography, both in terms of acting and directing.
Directed – Clint Eastwood
Rated – R
Run Time – 116 minutes