Riches and Redemption on the Cocaine Superhighway.
Family’s the most important thing. Don’t do what I did. I put work in front of family. I thought it was more important to be somebody out there, than the failure I was in my own home. I was a terrible father, a terrible husband. I blew my chance. I didn’t deserve forgiveness. This is the last one, so help me God, this is the last one.
— Clint Eastwood, THE MULE trailer.
Underneath the story of the 90-year-old mule for a Mexican drug cartel, is the story of a man filled with regret, trying to reconcile with his estranged family; THE MULE is the story of how that man managed to land back in their good graces, before it was too late.
By becoming a drug mule.
Uh, well, when you put it that way, he’s still not a good man. Just a richer one, who could afford to be a better person.
88-year-old Clint Eastwood is day-lily breeder Earl Stone, a cantankerous 80-year-old Korean War vet, a legend on the competitive day-lily circuit (as silly as I know that sounds – yet there are worlds out there that we will never know exist, fully-formed and spinning in their own universes. For the record, a “day-lily” is a plant whose flowers bloom for one day only). We meet Earl winning a flower competition, while his daughter (played by Clint’s real life daughter Alison Eastwood) is getting married, the family wondering whether Earl will show up, his ex-wife Mary (Diane Weist), resigned to the fact that he won’t. Over a beer with pals after the competition, we see in Earl’s eyes that he remembers the occasion, but chooses to stay at the bar…
10 Years Later…
Forced into foreclosure due to the internet sucking away his Illinois flower business (which he promoted only with brochures and word of mouth), Earl desperately accepts a driving job offered to him by a young stranger, that promises quick cash.
So begins Earl’s life as a drug mule, at age 90, breezily criss-crossing the state in his truck, like Philo Beddoe criss-crossing the San Fernando Valley; all that’s missing is the ape. Due to his reliability, non-descript demeanor, and invisibility to law enforcement, Earl becomes the cartel’s most successful mule. The armed, hard gangbangers who load his truck with shipments become friendly with him, dubbing him “Tata” (Grandfather), showing him how to use cellphones and GPS, for which Luddite Earl only has contempt.
The cartel’s godfather Laton (Andy Garcia) becomes nervous with Earl’s quantities, and assigns his trusted adopted boy Julio (Ignacio Serricchio) to shadow Earl. Ignacio plays the affable, carefree Don West in the 2018 LOST IN SPACE series, so it was a shock to see him rake Clint over the coals, with threats to kill him if his deliveries were late. Eventually, Ignacio’s character would also fall under Earl’s devil-may-care spell. That’s for a Scriptwriter Reason we’ll address later.
Drug Enforcement Administration Offices: we are suddenly assaulted by the visages of Laurence Fishburne as DEA Boss (directed by Clint in MYSTIC RIVER) and Bradley Cooper as Detective Colin Bates (directed by Clint in AMERICAN SNIPER). Movie’s cool quotient just rose higher than when we saw Andy Garcia as a drug lord! And Bates’s partner – Michael Peña (directed by Clint in MILLION DOLLAR BABY – cool quotient just went through the roof)! They speak of the inordinate amount of drugs being ferried around the state – and how their net is closing in on one particular ferrier…
The drug story in THE MULE is compelling enough, inspired by real life mule Leo Sharp, who did, in fact, breed day-lilies and was a WWII vet (made famous by Sam Dolnick’s 2014 article in the New York Times – The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule), but the layers under the drug story are the film’s real hook: Earl’s whole existence revolves around atoning for his sins in neglecting his family. With the delirious amounts of cash from drug running, he now has the resources for atonement (not only the money, but the free time the money affords, that can be put towards being more present for those he cared about), as he renovates his local Veterans’ clubhouse, gives cash to charities, and pays for his granddaughter’s wedding and attends it.
This atonement element is wholly a construct by screenwriter Nick Schenk to give the story gravitas. Sharp’s motivations were never identified, and he died before the moviemakers could interview him (December 2016, aged 92; arrested in 2011, sentenced in 2014 to 3 years, released after 1 year for failing health).
Yet, the atonement may be inspired by real life – not Sharp’s life – Clint’s life.
After 50 years of playing the strapping avenger, now Clint’s stance is stooped, his pants too high, his arms skeletal, his voice a mere rasp of its former velvet, yet he is having a ball playing this same crotchety, unfiltered Old Man Shouts At Cloud, that he premiered in GRAN TORINO (2008), and followed with TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE (2012). For decades, Clint’s life has been a slew of acting, directing, producing, travel, mayoral commitments, composing, etc., so he can easily be associated with the regrets that Earl might harbor. We know Clint has scattered families from several wives and girlfriends; son Scott Eastwood tells of how Clint never mollycoddled his kids (maybe due to not being there?); of how Scott never got handed a role through his famous father and had to audition like everybody else (which he did under pseudonyms to avoid favoritism) – a measure of Clint’s principles, or just another example of Clint not having the time to attend to his family?
In the film’s trailer, Clint gives that above speech in voiceover, but in the film, the sentiment is the same, though the words are altered, as he sits with Bradley Cooper at a diner, two strangers chatting, neither knowing who the other is. Only Clint knows the price he paid for choosing work over family. Is this film a last prayer for forgiveness?
The most poignant scene is family-related, as ex-wife Mary is put into a hospice to live out her last days. Earl gets word during his drug run, and detours to be with her. Mary is taken aback that he would come at all, and as he sits by her side, we hear Mary’s death rattle; disturbing and tough to watch, she forgives Earl in literally her last breaths. Movie unflinchingly shows every lung-tearing moment of Mary’s passing; driving home the message that we should not take our loved ones for granted.
My mule don’t like people laughing.
— Clint Eastwood, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.
I find it amusing that the film goes to great lengths to retain our love for Earl’s initial gang members, by overhauling the Latino cast in the third act. By this time, Ignacio’s Julio had morphed into a “good guy,” with Earl giving him advice on leaving the business; even Garcia’s godfather was portrayed having a heart of gold, welcoming Earl into his party mansion and getting him laid with two bimbos. Well, all these “lovable” Chicanos are overpowered by harder, meaner, trigger-happy cartel cholos, led by Clifton Collins Jr. as the new “evil” godfather. Why? So that when Earl is caught, we imagine the “nice” felons whom we got to know, won’t go down with Earl; rather, the horrible cholos who replaced Garcia and mistreated Ignacio will take the fall. A little taint of Hollywood.
The final scenes give the wrong impression of justice. Since Cooper’s and Pena’s detectives were pursuing this case throughout the movie, it seems like they’ve made a landmark bust when they pick up Earl. Uh, nope. DEA busted the guy ferrying drugs. Not the actual cartel or any kingpins or even capos. They only got the carrier – the guy who literally knows nothing else about the organization that he works for on a subcontractor basis. No matter how the real life situation panned out, in the movie, we never see the horrible gangbangers’ fates, and Earl faces the music alone. But – he’s only a mule, fellas! He never did drugs, he never pushed drugs, he never manufactured drugs —
The worst crime he’s ever committed is wearing his pants too high.