Clint Eastwood’s films have all been about regret and the old world clashing against the new world. He serves as a wise old sage in many respects, a symbol of past Americana, both great and flawed, and how it crashes against new social norms. In films like “Million Dollar Baby” and “Gran Torino”, his nuanced, simple approach works well and develops strong themes. “The Mule” is not near as successful, but nevertheless has some strong points.
Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a 90-year-old horticulturalist who doesn’t have enough money to pay for his granddaughter’s wedding or his mortgage or any number of other expenses. When he is approached about becoming a drug runner, he jumps at the chance to earn some much needed cash. In time, he becomes the cartel’s top “mule”, driving drugs back and forth from Mexico to Illinois. All the while, DEA agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) investigates him, never suspecting that the man he’s hunting is not a young hoodlum, but a Korean War vet.
The themes of regret, aging and love are strong throughout the film, and they keep it afloat even as some narrative storylines tumble (especially one starring Julio (Ignacio Serricchio), whom we believe to have a part to play in the conclusion but who simply disappears). Its universality keeps it highly accessible.
A devout Republican, it’s a bit hard to stomach some of Eastwood’s conservative underpinnings in the age of Trumpism. Most of the Latinos in the film are depicted as drug dealers, feeding directly into a sinister national narrative. Earl at one point calls an African-American family negroes before being corrected and is amused by a group of dykes on bikes. Granted, he is charmed to be corrected, but the stigma and general theme of new needing to learn from old still feels antiquated.
Narratively, the biggest problem with the film is Earl’s character. He’s rather dumb and naive, not taking care to cover his tracks very well or feeling remorse at being a drug runner. He eats ice cream, sings songs on the radio and pays his granddaughter’s tuition. What he really needed was a stronger conscience. He should feel bad about what it is he is doing and then the story is an examination of his conscience. Will he try to get out? How far is he willing to go? At what point will he break? Instead, Earl is far too eager to just go along with the plan, resulting in a ho-hum narrative that only achieves punch at the conclusion.
Being 88-years-old, who knows if this is last film of the legendary Clint Eastwood. It seemed that “Million Dollar Baby” was the crescendo of his career, then it was “Gran Torino”, then it was “American Sniper.” He appears to be showing no signs of stopping, but each Eastwood film, with its understated examination of basic emotions and penchant for hitting the heart, should be valued just in case.