The Mule

Release: Friday, December 14, 2018


Written by: Sam Dolnick; Nick Schenk

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

The Mule marks the 37th time Clint Eastwood has directed a movie. Remember that the next time you go out for Trivia Night. From The Eiger Sanction (1975) to his Best Picture-winning western Unforgiven (1992); Mystic River (2003) to Gran Torino (2008), the man has cemented himself as a national treasure who has done a little bit of everything — oh yes, I nearly forgot The Bridges of Madison County. How dare I? His latest effort won’t ever be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and contemporary successes like Million Dollar Baby (2004), yet The Mule seems destined to always have a place in my heart. It’s a quietly profound drama about aging, regret and misplaced priorities that finds an ever-more introspective Eastwood returning to acting for the first time in six years.

The Mule is inspired by a true story about an 80-something-year-old horticulturalist fallen on hard times who unwittingly becomes a prolific coke smuggler for a dangerous Mexican cartel in an attempt to reclaim his home and way of life. Names and locations have been changed. His character, Earl Stone, a Korean War vet whose age, race and spotless criminal history help him maintain a low profile while doing multiple drives from the border city of El Paso, Texas to Chicago, Illinois, is based upon the real Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a courier for the infamous Sinaloa Cartel and eluded capture for more than a decade.

Eastwood sets up a deliberately paced journey into the soul of a lonely man who has always put work before everything else and now finds himself having to come to terms with certain realities. The character is a perfect fit for the big screen veteran whose larger-than-life persona grafts well with Earl’s social butterfly. There is an interesting dichotomy within this man, someone who’s well-recognized around town for his gregariousness and those beautiful, award-winning (and world-renowned) hybridized lilies, all while being a complete stranger to his own family. That dynamic becomes even more pronounced as he begins making serious dough doing dirtier work and turns into this Robin Hood-esque character who funnels his ill-begotten cash into worthy causes, like renovating the facilities of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post.

The stakes really couldn’t be higher despite The Mule‘s lack of physicality and bloody conflict. The passing of time plays a major role in building tension. Time is Earl’s most precious resource and despite the unsavory characters he ends up getting in deep with, time is also his greatest enemy. He hasn’t spent it well and his future is as uncertain as ever, with the proliferation of internet-based floral shops making small businesses like his relics of the past. You might argue that The Mule isn’t really about the things he is doing to survive but rather the things he isn’t doing or not doing nearly well enough.

The Mule really becomes an elegy for time wasted when it comes to exploring Earl’s personal failings. His absenteeism hasn’t just affected his immediate family; it ripples across generations. His granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) is a prime example, her naivety towards Earl and his propensity for disappointing the people who matter most setting her on a collision course with a rude awakening. Meanwhile his long-ignored wife Mary (Dianne Wiest, heartbreaking) and estranged daughter Iris (real-life daughter Alison Eastwood) have learned to adapt. Sort of.

There is a disturbing real-world parallel that is all but impossible to ignore when you consider the revelation of this past December, when Eastwood was spotted at a promotional event for the film alongside someone who had rarely been caught in photos before. This younger woman was none other than Laurie Eastwood, reportedly the daughter he had given up for adoption in 1954 and whom he had never acknowledged until now. A 1999 biography — Clint: The Life and Legend — attempted to shed light on the matter, but the book’s publishing was met with serious opposition and no other media outlet ever attempted to confirm.

Despite Earl’s initial reluctance to commit to more than one run, his stock quickly rises and his loads increase exponentially — at one point he is carting around in his truck bed something like $3 million in product. His reliability, not to mention his remarkably calm composure around his new employers, earn him the respect of low-level street dealers and big-time suppliers alike. “El Tata” eventually ingratiates himself with el jefe, Andy García’s El Chapo-like Laton and his many curvaceous mamasitas. His status amongst the cartel is challenged with the sudden and violent coup staged by the power-hungry Gustavo (Eastwood’s ex-son-in-law Clifton Collins Jr.), who seeks to put the clamps on El Tata’s liberal interpretation of the rules governing his employment (no delays, no unplanned pitstops, etc).

Tension is further amplified by the circling vultures of Chicago’s DEA agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (a disappointingly under-used Michael Peña). They’re seeking a number of significant busts to satiate their higher-ups, represented by Laurence Fishburne‘s Special Agent and Pete Burris’s DEA Regional Manager. Time isn’t on Earl’s side, but it isn’t exactly in favor of Bates and his partner either. Their bosses want the results Bates’ hard work simply isn’t yielding. Kilos upon kilos of white powder are flooding the city. The two narratives become increasingly interlinked, with Cooper and Eastwood getting a few interesting (if perhaps far too coincidental) moments of shared screen time as they exchange pleasantries under the canopy of well-crafted dramatic irony.

The culmination of events certainly won’t be to everyone’s satisfaction. The Mule goes out quietly but not without a sense of closure. No big shoot-outs, no grand-standing, no soap-box taking. No glorifying. No pretense of making drug running a sexy, enticing lifestyle. In short, no (or very little) Hollywood gloss. I appreciated that level of restraint. The story is familiar and riddled with cliché but I still find it hard to resist Clint Eastwood in this mode, seemingly repenting for aspects of his own life he is none too proud of.

Recommendation: As it turns out, the promotional material has been selling quite a different experience, the trailers suggesting a harder-hitting, more action-driven adventure than what you end up getting. Where there might have been action or at least more snarling intensity in an Eastwood picture some twenty years ago now there is more solemn reflection. This isn’t a bad thing, but maybe set expectations accordingly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for everything.”

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8 thoughts on “The Mule

  1. Pingback: Month in Review: January ’19 | Thomas J

  2. I didn’t really read this as I like to go into movies as blind as I can…. but DAMN YOU for having already seen it! All I could do is watch a CAM version online, and screw that. Guess I’ll have to wait till next month. Hopefully then I can come back here to read it and comment again, Though really, I think we should chat a lot more on facebook man. I think we seem to be very similar people.

    Or perhaps I’m crazy 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hate Facebook tbh man, but FB messenger is an option. I do apologize for my lapses in responses lately. I haven’t been very good staying in touch.

      I think it goes both ways when it comes to missing out on movies. For example, you got several films already reviewed that won’t be out here for some time, if at all (The Rider; We the Animals — never even heard of it but sounds great!; all those titles from the Adelaide Film Fest) — so damn you, back!!! 😉

      The Mule is good. It isn’t action-oriented, so if you’re looking for that sorta thing, you might walk away disappointed. But I really took a lot away from it myself.


      • cue another essay heh… 😛

        I’m not expecting action in The Mule, I have zero expectations actually… I haven’t watched the trailers. I go in as blind as I can. Plus expectations can often ruin a really good movie imo if its not what you were hoping for.

        Ha, and there is an Aussie movie with the same title man. Same general concept I’m guessing but its about a dude who smuggles a bunch of condoms filled with smack up his arse. Literally most of the movie is cops with him in a hotel room waiting for him to take a shit. Its fucking hilarious. And it has Hugo Weaving which is instant win

        Yeah I’m lucky with the film fest, a lot of people think we have the best fest in Oz. I mean, it had the new Goddard film and the World Premiere of The Babadook’s director’s new movie.

        And as for those other titles man… that’s just cos I’m a filthy pirate. Ain’t something I’m proud of but if there is no other way to watch em then I’m gonna bloody download it!

        We the Animals is such a sleeper man. I’ve heard NOTHING about it.

        As for FB man messenger was what I meant I hate the rest of it. I’ll shoot you a msg it’d be cool to chat more, I love talkin about movies and none of my mates IRL like movies for some bizarre reason.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Very cool to hear! I liked it a lot — but then again I am a sucker for Clint Eastwood, even though several of his most recent directorial efforts have been sub-par at best. (Who remembers Jersey Boys . . . ?)


  3. Nice review! It’s one I’m still trying to finish up. Put everything into finishing my Top 20 post and now I’m trying to catch up on reviews. I enjoyed this one too. It does catch you off guard especially after seeing the trailer several times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For sure. I liked the way it goes, there is a lot of great acting going on and I get the sense that this could be a swan song for a legacy. Let us hope that is not the case. Eastwood I bet has plenty more in him.

      I am *hoping* to get a Thomas J Best-of-2018 compiled soon but we shall see. That takes a lot of effort. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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