At 88, Clint Eastwood — the keeper of the classic-moviemaking flame, the now-and-forever Dirty Harry — looks bent but never broken in The Mule, the true story of 90-year-old Earl Stone. He’s a divorced horticulturist from Peoria, Illinois, someone who grew tired of making little things grow, except maybe his wallet. So, almost by accident, Earl takes a job driving illegal cargo for a Mexican drug cartel from Chicago to El Paso. It’s not a job recommended by AARP, but the old man figures he can make a few bucks to help his estranged family, pay for the education of his granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga) and still have cash left over-to keep his veterans-hall hangout from closing. So Earl drives, singing along with Willie Nelson, Dean Martin or whoever’s crooning on the radio, and dropping off the cocaine he barely conceals in the back of his trunk. He’s in the clear, since the cops regularly ignore what America ignores best: the elderly.
In the first film Eastwood has directed himself in since 2009’s Gran Torino, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind avoids the “get-off-my-lawn” violence of his hotheaded character in that film. (Though not necessarily the generational racism: Earl still refers to the African-American folks he stops to help at the side of the road as “negroes” and makes “beaner” jokes with his Latin co-workers.) Instead, Eastwood eases down the road with his unlikely antihero until both the law — in the person of DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) — and the lawbreakers — led by the high-living cartel boss Laton (Andy Garcia) — start vying to take him out. He’s also prone to making unscheduled stops to visit his buddies or try to heal the wounds he inflicted on his estranged family. The reliably fine Dianne Wiest plays Mary, the wife he left behind to travel around as a daylily salesman, while Alison Eastwood (yes, there’s a relation) takes the role of Earl’s alienated daughter, still miffed that Dad didn’t bother to pay for her wedding … or even attend it.
A New York Times Magazine article, “The Sinola Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule,” inspired the script from Gran Torino screenwriter Nick Schenk, who lays the family drama on thick. But Eastwood makes The Mule feel real and lived-in. Like Earl, he takes the time to look and learn from the world around him. The deliberate pace of the film may put off action fans, but there’s no resisting the humor Eastwood allows to cut through the cracks in the film’s more obvious drama. The burner phone that the drug handlers give Earl to communicate means the old coot needs to learn how to text. “Damn Internet ruins everything,” he grumbles. And did we mention that his job perks include a night with two hookers?
The sex seems to amuse Eastwood the filmmaker no end, as do the moments when the fun of the film serves to illuminate character. One knockout scene in a diner, where Eastwood gets to interact with his American Sniper star Cooper, is a canny treat. Cooper, terrific in a small but pivotal role, seems thrilled to be playing acting chess with a grand master. The two share stories of their failures as family men, but the agent — unaware he’s talking to a felon — drops the ball by not paying careful attention.
Eastwood, to his credit, never portrays Earl as being too blind or too naïve not to realize the moral borders he’s crossing. The Mule is more character study than Dirty Harry: The Emeritus Years. It’s the detours on the road — the stops along the way that show an old man dealing with the dim possibilities of change near the end of his life — that reveal this drug-mule-in-winter drama as a deeply personal reckoning.