(Some Spoilers Ahead)
Clint Eastwood's latest film is based on the real-life exploits of Leo Sharpe, an elderly WW2 vet the Sinaloa drug cartel used as a “mule” to transport drugs and money for almost 10 years in the early 00's.
Like the real-life Sharpe, Eastwood's character, Earl Stone, is first shown as a gregarious and successful horticulturalist and celebrity breeder of custom day lilies who is admired and honored. However, beneath that we also see that he is a consummate workaholic who is so enthralled with the fame, adulation, and wealth his success has brought him, that he completely neglects his family and caused the breakup of his marriage. We see how he missed the day of his own daughter's wedding so that he could attend a horticultural convention to receive a prestigious award.
The movie then shifts to a few years later as his business and home are about to be foreclosed on. He pays his workers their last paycheck before heading off to his granddaughter's wedding engagement party, who is the only member of his family he has any relationship with. There, after arguing with his ex-wife and the daughter whose wedding he missed, Stone meets a young man who gives him a card which connects him to drug runners who eventually offer him a job delivering drugs because of his spotless driving record.
From there the movie shows Stone making a total of eight runs, all the while DEA agent Colin Bates (wonderfully played by Bradley Cooper) and his partner Trevin (Michael Peña) are trying to find him based only on the description of his truck and his nickname, “El Tata” (the grandfather).
In between runs, he spends money on his friends and especially his granddaughter to put her through school, all the while trying to reconcile with his family. As he becomes increasingly successful at his work, he is given a handler who watches his every move and is even brought to Mexico to meet the cartel boss El Laton (played by Andy Garcia).
However, when Laton his killed by his henchmen and the new “management” sets stricter standards on Stone and show him a person who was killed for failing to follow orders to show that they mean business, Stone begins to rethink his position. He plans on quitting after one more run in order to spend more time with his family, with whom he has healed some of the rifts. But it doesn't quite work out that way.
The Prodigal Father
In one sense the film is a vivid demonstration of our Lord's admonition of “what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” However, it is precisely the “world” shown in The Mule where Stone is attempting to make his gains, that makes the Parable of the Prodigal Son a more fitting analogy, but with one caveat: in a fashion more in keeping with the moral morass of our contemporary culture, the film upends the traditional parable so that what we get is a parable of a prodigal father.
In the character of Earl Stone, we see that it is the father who is restless and not satisfied with the love and affection offered by his family. It is the father who yearns for a life of excitement beyond the daily experiences of hearth and home. It is the father who is the one that eventually squanders any inheritance he would leave behind. It is the father who devolves from a sort of carefree attitude to outright debauchery. And it is the father who foolishly thinks that all of those shortcomings can somehow be assuaged or even fixed by merely handing around a lot of cash.
While workaholism has always been a perennial vice for many fathers, the pathetic and sordid mess that is Earl Stone's life presented in The Mule is unfortunately now the norm in our society. Absent or inattentive fathers, along with all of the social pathologies that go along with them, are an established fact of life in the 21st century.
From a societal perspective, the film is a grim reminder of the world we live in. A world akin to the “Upside Down” in the Netflix series Stranger Things, where dark but unseen entities are affecting and even entering the seemingly ordinary world around us. A world where the drug cartels operate in the open out of nondescript buildings or businesses, such as the auto shop in El Paso in the movie, where Stone picks up his drug shipment. A world that loves to portray big corporations as the epitome of all evil, but can be rather tepid towards the products of “companies” whose business model is literally based on violence, murder, and an indifference to misery caused by the drug trade.
Meanwhile, on the law enforcement side, we see a world where agent Bates must also, to a certain extent, abandon his family to fight the ongoing drug wars. We see how he must operate within a soulless bureaucratic framework operating on limited budgets, reams of paperwork, getting actions approved, and of course making their superiors look good in the press. All against a hydra-like foe that never seems to diminish because of the demand for drugs by untold numbers of people who are willing to overlook all kinds of evil associated with the trade that is going on all around them.
A Chance at Redemption
However, it is not a world without hope. Stone manages to reconcile with his family when he interrupts his drug run at the worst possible time with the worst possible people (given the context of the change of leadership in the cartel) to spend with his ex-wife as she is dying. It is there that she chides Stone for not being there for his family, “we got the Earl who was waiting to get back out there,” but who in the end forgives him, “you didn't need to be rich for us to want to have you around.” She dies shortly afterwards and he attends the funeral, after which his long-estranged daughter invites him to Thanksgiving.
After reconnecting with his drug handlers who intend to kill him after he finishes his route, Stone stops at a diner and ends up chatting with agent Bates over breakfast. Stone realizes that he is speaking to a younger version of himself, a young man starting out as a married man and who happens to be missing his anniversary because of his work. Sensing that the cartel will probably kill him after his run, and finally consumed with the heartache that he has caused in his life, he essentially repents.
It is interesting that, symbolically speaking Stone is talking with someone who represents the law (both legal and moral) when he can finally admit the truth of his life and chooses right over wrong as he tells Bates to not become like him. Furthermore, Stone makes a firm amendment of purpose by accepting full responsibility for his actions at his trial by simply pleading guilty, and does his penance in federal prison.
It was once said that Unforgiven was Clint Eastwood's attempt to kill off his Spaghetti Western persona, and that Grand Torino was his attempt to do away with his Dirty Harry persona. It is an intriguing thought to think that with The Mule, Eastwood is not killing off, but attempting to redeem the one role that ever made any difference in his life—that of himself. It is no secret that he has had a tumultuous personal life (to put it mildly), with many marriages, affairs, and out-of-wedlock children.
Nevertheless, it is the dramatic element that he added to the real-life account of a drug mule, that makes The Mule a moving tale, and another suitable capstone for this phase of Eastwood's life. It is not easy to come to grips with our shortcomings in life, but this movie does a decent job in playing out the redemption of a prodigal character in the end.
The movie is rated R for pervasive language, violence, and a completely unnecessary brief scene of nudity when Stone visits the drug lord's villa in Mexico.
Photo: Claire Folger/Warner Bros.