True story about an old man who got away with a surprisingly lucrative crime spree because no one suspected such a thing from a senior citizen. Adapted from an article. Has faint awards aspirations. Functions as the potential on-screen swan song for one of cinema’s most iconic actors, and finds that person looking back on their life with a mixture of regret and joy.
Didn’t I just write this review? I’m meant to be talking about Clint Eastwood’s The Mule, yet in all the ways I listed above and more this sounds an awful lot like Robert Redford’s The Old Man and the Gun. The difference is The Old Man and the Gun is a rather meditative cops and bank robbers story which would really rather just be about how people cope with getting old whereas The Mule adheres more closely to a traditional crime narrative.
Eastwood’s 90-year-old midwesterner Earl Stone, a down-on-his-luck horticulturist and failed father, grandfather, and husband transports massive amounts of cocaine across state lines. The authorities at the DEA – regional director Laurence Fishburne and field agents Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena – gradually circle in on him. They just have no idea the man they’re looking for is 90-years-old, and for most of the film Earl’s too in love with this last great adventure in his life to realize it’ll ever end.
The tension in this scenario comes from not knowing if or when the DEA will finally get to him, like a Catch Me If You Can with the ages reversed and massively increased, or if he’ll be killed by the drug cartel instead since they grow impatient with his continual defiance of their rules.
This is great, in theory, but in practice, it means an awful lot of watching Clint Eastwood sing along with the radio while driving a black Lincoln truck on a highway. It’s more charming than you’d expect, but it gets a bit old. Stone is recruited into the cartel exactly because he’s the last person anyone would suspect and in all of his 90 years he’s never had a single speeding ticket or accident. There’s no reason for any cop to pull him over. As far as he’s concerned, it’s easy money, so easy that it apparently absolves him from having any real opinion on the morality of what he’s doing or the drug crisis he’s contributing to.
The idea in Nick Schenk’s (Gran Torino) script is Earl becomes a mule to finally provide for his estranged family – daughter Alison Eastwood, granddaughter Taissa Farmiga, ex-wife Dianne Wiest – and maybe repair some of the emotional wounds there before it’s too late. It’s a redemption story, but it’s one which is occasionally obscured by just how much fun Earl ends up having.
There are, for example, not just one but two different scenes of him having a threesome with ladies young enough to be his granddaughter. Even after the cartel sends a handler to monitor his actions, Earl remains his untamable self, usually winning over his harshest critics with a no-filter charm.
As other critics have pointed out with moral outrage, Earl does repeatedly say racist things and then repeatedly replies with a well-I’ll-be-damned “No shit” when someone calls him on it and challenges him to be more woke. “We don’t say ‘negro’ anymore. We prefer ‘black’ now, like, how you’re a white guy, and I’m a black guy. Or, you know, you could just call us people,” is the hilarious response from a black couple Earl meets while offering to help change their flat tire.
Moments like that remind us we are watching a movie from the same director-screenwriter pair responsible for Gran Torino, in which Eastwood’s racist, get-off-my-lawn Korean War veteran slowly gets over his prejudices. However, while that is the absolute heart of Gran Torino it’s more window dressing in The Mule, just another facet of Earl’s edification and larger improbable journey toward discovering a lesson he definitely should have learned long ago: money and work should always come second to family.
It’s a lovely message, well told in this surprisingly endearing movie. It’s almost enough to make me forgive The 15:17 to Paris. Almost.
THE BOTTOM LINE
An endearing redemption story coupled with a perfectly tense crime story. The actual redemption part of the story, however, does get obscured a bit along the way, and there are certainly those who just can’t forgive Eastwood’s depiction of casual racism.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- At 87-years-old, Eastwood is technically playing above his actual age to play Earl. You just don’t hear that a lot about 87-year-old actors.
- This would make for a perfect double billing with The Old Man and the Gun, but between the two The Mule is the more traditionally satisfying film.
- Old Man Eastwood Alert: With The Mule, be prepared to hear Eastwood’s take on cell phones. Spoiler: he’s not a fan.
What’s your take on The Mule? Let me know in the comments.