From Dirty Harry to … dirty grandpa, Clint Eastwood certainly has a type of character that he plays best, and “The Mule” finds him squarely in his comfort zone, appearing as a surly old horticulturalist who, at age 90, has become perhaps the most reliable drug runner for the Sinaloa cartel, evading detection for nearly a decade because he doesn’t look the part of a courier.
It’s a great true story, colorfully told by Sam Dolnick in The New York Times and somewhat watered down for the screen by Nick Schenk, the still-green screenwriter who got incredibly lucky when Eastwood agreed to direct and star in his early spec, “Gran Torino.” And there’s obviously no one better to embody someone like Leo Sharp — the real-life criminal whose name has been changed to Earl Stone for the movie — than Eastwood, who can play stubborn, battle-scarred, casually racist characters in his sleep.
A role like this is both delightful and disappointing for Eastwood fans, seeing that “The Mule” delivers more of the same from the star, now 88, even as it pales in comparison with a stronger late-career showcase from earlier this year, “The Old Man and the Gun,” which played to the strengths of Robert Redford’s persona while giving the actor so many fresh notes to experiment with. But Eastwood is a minimalist, and instead of building on what has come before, he whittles away, recognizing that the almost imperceptible uptick of an eyebrow or a discreet downturn of the mouth is more effective than a full-blown grimace or reams of dialogue. And frankly, with a character like this, it’s better when he keeps his mouth shut.
There’s a word for people like Earl Stone, and that’s “problematic.” Most white Americans have a relative like Earl, who’s old enough to remember a time when good old boys ran the country and everyone else was their inferior. You sort of tense up in their presence, never knowing what kind of politically incorrect garbage will come spewing out — in this case, when Earl refers to a gang of motorcycle-riding lesbians by the nickname they use for themselves, or tells a group of Latinos that they ”all look the same” — and most of us let it slide, accepting that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Except you can and we must, and that’s sort of the point of “The Mule” when it comes to other aspects of Earl’s personality, which have clearly been inspired by the question, “What makes an octogenarian daylily enthusiast decide to become a drug runner for the Mexican cartels?” (That kind of career change certainly qualifies as a new trick by most people’s standards.) To address that, Schenk has invented a family history in which Earl was long ago divorced from wife Mary (a waste of Dianne Wiest) after prioritizing other things above his only child, Iris (played by Eastwood’s daughter Alison).
These women, along with Earl’s more forgiving granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga), serve as the emotional center of the film, which is an effective narrative strategy, but a little too easy. Earl’s family exists primarily to demonstrate the kind of deadbeat husband and father he’s been all his life, and to prove that he can change — which underscores the fact that his retrograde attitudes toward women and those of other races ought not to be inflexible either.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with presenting bigoted people on-screen, since heaven knows they exist in real life, but the trouble with “The Mule” is that it invites audiences to laugh along with Earl’s ignorance. From here, it’s no great stretch to imagine a movement — call it “Make Hollywood Great Again” — advocating for movies in which politically incorrect characters like the ones Eastwood has played for most of his career will be free to speak their minds again.
Further complicating the portrayal are the many ways Schenk’s script tries to make Earl likable — which he already is through the simple fact that he’s embodied by Eastwood. Earl decides to make his first run without quite knowing what it is he’s transporting, using the money to help pay for Ginny’s wedding while keeping enough to buy himself a new pickup truck. He might’ve called it quits there, except the local VFW community center is at risk of closing unless it gets a $25,000 donation, so Earl goes back for another round. And so on, to the extent that he starts to feel like the Robin Hood of drug runners. He even risks his life (from trigger-happy cartel minders) by stopping to help a stranded family change a flat tire. It’s a nice gesture until he opens his mouth and we realize he sees them by the color of their skin, and thinks of them in terms that haven’t been socially acceptable for decades. They correct him, of course, but the movie never gives Earl the chance to demonstrate whether he learned his lesson.
The film is full of small supporting characters, including Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña, and Laurence Fishburne as a trio of thinly sketched DEA agents, although Earl’s is the only role that could reasonably be described as a three-dimensional human being. The others are almost insultingly flat, which is most troubling when it comes to the Latino characters. A few of them actually have names, but most are little more than reductive stereotypes: generically menacing Mexicans who almost certainly have more nuanced reasons for doing what they do. If only the movie afforded them the same attention it lavishes on understanding where Earl is coming from.
That doesn’t mean “The Mule” isn’t more enlightened than its wisecracking, lawbreaking protagonist. In one scene, as the DEA is zeroing in on the elusive cartel driver known only as “Tata,” it pulls over a terrified Latino driver who educates the agents (and the audience) by sputtering, “Statistically speaking, this is the most dangerous five minutes of my life.” That law enforcement targeted him at all is a clear case of racial profiling, which was precisely the kind of bias the cartel was counting on when it enlisted Earl to be its runner in the first place.
If you’ve read this far, then you are at least receptive to the idea that “The Mule” could do better where its identity politics are concerned, and that’s perhaps the biggest letdown in a movie that’s otherwise classic Eastwood: spare, efficient, and morally complicated enough (regarding Earl’s motives) to deliver a satisfying night at the movies. This isn’t the role that will earn Eastwood a legion of new fans, but it’s almost sure to delight those who appreciate him already. There are a few subtle changes to the Eastwood M.O. here: Whereas the piano-savvy star famously scores his own films, reuniting the same team on most of his productions, here he taps Canadian DP Yves Bélanger (“Dallas Buyers Club”) to supply the unfussy look Tom Stern usually provides and enlists Arturo Sandoval to compose the handful of jazzy, classic-noir wisps of music that breeze through the film.