In recent years, Clint Eastwood has largely concerned himself with the business of heroism. His past three directorial efforts, American Sniper, Sully, and The 15:17 to Paris, were quiet, plaintive portraits of real-life icons, ordinary folks elevated to celebrity by acts of derring-do. But when Eastwood himself is both behind and in front of the camera, things change. The Mule is Eastwood’s first starring role in six years and his first in a movie that he directed since 2008’s Gran Torino. The two films have a lot in common: Both center on grunting old cowboys, men well out of step with younger generations who are unafraid to complain about it.
More importantly, these movies are about the limits of such men, who might have some remaining charm but who have long ago been left behind by everyone in their life. Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino was nakedly racist, sexist, and homophobic, spouting abuse and misery at anyone who crossed his path. The ostensible hero of The Mule is a slightly softer figure, but he’s still a man who’s guilty of neglecting his family and who’s sometimes too quick to fire off an insensitive joke. Oh, and he also gets drawn in to a surprising postretirement life of crime when a drug cartel taps him to serve as a courier.
The Mule is based on the true story of Leo Sharp, which was chronicled in The New York Times by Sam Dolnick; the film was written by Nick Schenk, who also scripted Gran Torino. Here, Sharp has been renamed Earl Stone, but his story is essentially the same. He’s a war veteran and a horticulturist (one particularly famous for his flowers’ vibrant colors) who becomes a drug runner in his late 80s at the behest of a Mexican drug cartel. His advanced age, years of experience driving around the country, and a spotless criminal record lead him to become one of the cartel’s most prized assets.
It’s a different kind of cowboy for Eastwood to play, but Earl is at least 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 (if you’ve been looking for a film in which an 88-year-old Eastwood simulates having threesomes onscreen, then The Mule is the ticket for you).
Earl isn’t quite the devilish charmer Robert Redford was in The Old Man & the Gun, but he retains a certain twinkle in his eye. He’s polite enough to ask after his employers’ families and to form bonds with some of the hardened criminals he works with. When it comes to his own family, though, Earl is a failure—he’s despised by his ex-wife, Mary (Dianne Wiest), and by his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood, the director’s own daughter). He quickly disappoints his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) when she gives him a chance to reenter her life.
Time and again, Earl picks his career and the freedom of the open road over familial commitment, which leaves him with few options when his home is foreclosed on. The Mule is set in Peoria, Illinois, which Eastwood depicts as increasingly desolate, much like Gran Torino’s Detroit. One secondary plot line sees Earl using his earnings to reopen a shuttered Veterans of Foreign Wars hall, basking in the praise he gets as a result. Meanwhile, he can barely remember to attend the birthday parties his children invite him to.
It’s not hard to draw a line connecting Earl’s neglect of his family and the oft-married Eastwood’s own wandering ways through the years; the director has all but drawn that line for the audience by casting his daughter. That resonance helps The Mule feel like a particularly fascinating swan song (though there’s certainly no guarantee that this is Eastwood’s last movie, given his workhorse status as a director). 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 (Bradley Cooper), 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.
While Eastwood has made plenty of intense thrillers in his day, The Mule 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 road movie, 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 movie is as much a eulogy for a country that Eastwood sees as slowly crumbling as it is for the life Earl chose to lead.