Clint Eastwood’s second feature of 2018, The Mule, asks a lot of its audience. In the opening sequence, not a minute goes by before a deportation joke comes up. And that’s just one of many one-liners that some audiences may find uncomfortable. But in actuality, Eastwood recognizes his somewhat tacky antics and begs his audience to look past that. Because underneath it all, he crafts a film that speaks to the experiences of a diverse range of Americans.
Based on The New York Times article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule” by Sam Dolnick and WWII veteran Leo Sharp’s true life story, Nick Schenk’s screenplay is a watered down version of what happens when a horticulturist turns to a life of crime. Earl Stone, played by Clint Eastwood, is estranged from his family and on the verge of financial crisis when presented with the opportunity to make easy money. In his desperation to regain security and win back his family with lavish gifts, Stone becomes the Mexican drug cartel’s mule, transporting drugs and whatever else his handlers give to him across state lines.
In its 116-minute run time, The Mule unmasks a lot about The dying American Dream. Throughout the film, it’s clear that no matter a person’s sex, orientation, race, or age, hard-working middle-class Americans will always be on bended knees at the beckoning of this tarnished ideal. These critiques are elegantly implanted throughout the story, revealing the harsh truths that so many people live. Unfortunately, and to the surprise of no casual to frequent movie-goer, this message has been showcased in film before.
But what makes The Mule so fascinating, despite its overused message, is that it’s almost like it’s a variation of Eastwood’s personal story (minus the drug cartel part, of course). A charming yet brash and quick-witted senior man, who has dedicated his life to his work, sets out to reconnect with his family after being close-to-absent for so long. It’s not so much a wild assumption to make that Eastwood would take on this story because of his connectivity to it. After all, his real-life daughter, Alice, saw her role as an “opportunity to not only play his daughter, but also just to spend some free time with him.” But it is Eastwood’s well-performed portrayal of such a character that one can’t help but to dot the lines.
But when the story doesn’t spend time on the familiar depiction of family turmoil, it is a decent road-trip/crime hunter mash-up film. Filled with good supporting characters like DEA agents Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper), whose quest for a bust gets the best of him, and Trevino, played by the ever-charming and humor-handy Michael Peña, the two provide the film’s much-needed action to this slow burn. Furthermore, the script is oddly humorous, making the story that much more compelling.
Not without its flaws, The Mule doesn’t quite fill in the gaps it so willingly leaves throughout the film. For one, most members of Stone’s family have no depth. Normally, this wouldn’t matter for such a film, but one of its focal points – reestablishing familial bonds – says otherwise. Despite this, the film manages to incorporate broad experiences such as police prejudice, the Mexican-American experience and manhood to support its many themes that plague our current society.
If there’s one thing audiences should take away from their experiences watching The Mule on the big screen, it’s that Eastwood has got a winner on his hands as far as entertainment is concerned. After his earlier 2018 feature, The 15:17 to Paris, failed to connect with critics and audiences, alike, most will argue that this film is a step in the right direction towards reclaiming his magic as a director. Filled with humanizing moments, and at times, tonally-jarring dialogue, many will find that while it’s no groundbreaking entry of the genre, the glaring message of stopping to smell the roses will be enough to make anyone smile despite the story’s outcome.