By Steve Pulaski
Let us take a moment and recognize how lucky we are — as cinephiles and moviegoers, both casual and ardent. This year, we got to experience two terrific films featuring two generational talents that both credibly served as fitting swan-songs. They are both The Old Man & the Gun, for the recently retired Robert Redford, and The Mule, for Clint Eastwood, arguably the hardest working, most resilient man in Hollywood.
No, Eastwood hasn't confirmed he's retiring from filmmaking. After all, his most recent film beforeThe Mule was The 15:17 to Paris, but I don't feel like resurrecting that woeful miscalculation. At 88 years old, he's a man of incredible commitment to film, directing seven features this decade alone, and someone who has stayed on top of his game, aging like a fine Cabernet in terms of keeping his talents recognizable, even in some of his lesser projects. The Mule is as beautiful of a summation of him and his career as any. It's a uniformly engaging, if complicated film about legacy, forgiveness, the shrapnel that results from making a boom with living the American Dream, and above family, family-time.
Following three docudramas — American Sniper, Sully, and The 15:17 to Paris — that chronicled his fascination with American heroism, Eastwood inserts himself into a story of a common man who has made a living, enjoyed the fruits of it, but has shamelessly neglected those who stood by awaiting a spot in his busy schedule. Based on the New York Times article "The Sinaloa Cartel's 90-Year-Old Drug Mule" by Sam Dolnick, the film revolves around Earl Stone, a 90-year-old horticulturalist in Peoria, Illinois (fun fact: roughly an hour from where I presently live), who has enjoyed his successful life on his unassuming Midwestern ranch. In 2005, he was flourishing, looking on with skepticism at several day-lily conventions when newcomers would introduce technology that made his line of work more efficient but less personable. Presently, 12 years later, he's succumbed to foreclosure and accepts a job trafficking hundreds of kilos of cocaine across flyover country for the Sinaloa cartel.
Earl is estranged from his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest), and his daughter (Alison Eastwood, Clint's real-life daughter) won't even speak to him anymore. They both not only came second during Earl's marriage, but were hardly factored into the equation at all. Earl routinely missed graduations, anniversaries, and even his own daughter's wedding. The only family connection he retains is with his granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga), who he attempts to rekindle with at her own pre-wedding party until Mary and his daughter both scorn him for his opportunistic attempt to find a place to stay. One of the party guest slips him a card and tells him there are people that are willing to pay him for driving. He becomes known as "Tata," frequently visiting an El Paso tire-shop where a trio of Mexican-Americans greet Earl by shoveling luggage into the back of his truck and tossing him a burner phone and instructions for how to proceed at the drop-off location. Earl earns the respect of the laidback kingpin Latos (Andy García), but draws the ire of loyal cartel worker Julio (Ignacio Serricchio).
Juxtaposing Earl's success as a mule is the DEA, who do all they can to nab the Sinaloa cartel by sniffing out their drivers. Leading the case is Agent Bates (Bradley Cooper), a handsome new agent who mirrors Earl's younger self as a work-minded, family-second individual trying to get his slice of the pie. Working in conjunction with Agent Trevino (Michael Peña) and their leading agent (Laurence Fishburne), the two men make use of a snitch which gradually inches them to Earl — call it "The Old Man & the Truck," if you'd like.
The Mule is not a flawless film. It contains the usual shortcomings of an Eastwood-directed feature in that it's messily edited, sometimes cutting away too quickly or curiously lingering on a banal moment, and unkind to developing secondary characters (a similar problem you'll find in Jersey Boys). But predictably choppy editing is mostly forgiven thanks to the barrage of great performances from Eastwood, Cooper, and García, and the fact that The Mule never loses its heart as a serene, tender drama about what matters most in life. Seeing Eastwood's withered face as he looks onto his family in their most vulnerable state knowing damn-well he can't do anything about all the time he's let pass up until this point and with the subtle inclination that he'd probably do it all over again if given the opportunity almost gives a pass to whatever underwhelming if expected aesthetic issues may arise.
The intercut scenes of Earl's long days on the road with Bates' tireless man-hours tracking the geezer are handled impressively, for that matter, as they illustrate the commonality between the men that is stated just enough not to be overstated. Screenwriter Nick Schenk — who penned Gran Torino, the last vehicle Eastwood both directed and starred in — appropriately handles both stories without spoonfeeding the audience what to feel or how to feel it — a major note in a film that's full of saccharine moments that never feel as delicate as they could thanks to the commendable, honest emotions remaining in the foreground.
The Mule simultaneously works as a tense exploration of an individual's experience with the cartel, made all the more intriguing given the fact that a mule is someone who holds both an expendable yet extremely vital position. As such, it too works as a road movie, one that gives a nod to the long, ostensibly never-ending Midwestern roads that take one through the predictable but lovable hot-spots, such as a locale with "the best pulled-pork sandwich in the world" and remarkably unremarkable gas stations pit-stops, and motels with comfortable enough beds to suit a good night's rest. Eastwood sometimes struggles with balancing multiple, intricate themes in his films, but here, it feels all natural, largely because it's unequivocally personal. Eastwood likely couldn't relate to Chris Kyle, Chesley Sullenberger, or any of the three heroes aboard the Paris train that effectively stopped a deadly terrorist attack, but he can indeed relate to Earl Stone, a workaholic who stopped to appreciate the fruits of his labor, but never got to appreciate those integral to life with whom you can't live without and whom you can't replace. Therein lies the part about the pursuit of the American Dream they don't tell you.
The Mule is a quietly earnest revelation as it's not solely about family but how necessary family-time is to the human experience. What good is a family if their phone-number illuminating on your cell-phone is seen as important as a telemarketer's phone call? Nick Schenk gets it. Eastwood gets it. And The Mule gets it. My guess is many audience members will too.
NOTE: I, like many moviegoers, saw The Mule because I am a fan of Clint Eastwood and liked the trailers. When I heard Toby Keith recorded his song, "Don't Let the Old Man In," for the movie, I became more excited. When I heard it, I was moved by its lyrics. When I saw it in context of the movie, I was moved emotionally. Now I'm convinced it should be recognized at next year's Oscars. Just thought I'd share that as well.