As far as storytelling goes, The Mule is a missed opportunity in that the new Clint Eastwood film misses more than it hits.
The film’s opens with Sunnyside Meadows Flower Farm owner Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) taking home the gold medal at the 2005 National Daylily League Convention. Unfortunately, Earl would rather be accepting the award than being there for his daughter, Iris (Alison Eastwood). It just so happens that Iris is getting married and Earl isn’t there to walk her down the aisle. It’s just another case of him letting his family down. He would be the guy having fun when away from the family. But when at home, Earl couldn’t wait to leave again.
Next thing we know, it’s 2017 and Earl’s daylily farm is under foreclosure. Because he wasn’t there for Iris, the rift with Earl’s family has grown deeper. Neither Iris nor ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) want anything to do with him. But the family fight at granddaughter Ginny’s (Taissa Farmiga) pre-wedding brunch turns out to be a blessing in disguise. A friend of Ginny’s bridesmaids informs Earl of a potential job. All he has to do is drive from point A to point B. Earl has a clean record. Here’s this old man who has visited 41 of 50 states with a perfect driving record to boot. With no tickets under his belt, he’s the perfect man for the the job. There’s just one minor problem–Earl has now become a drug mule for the cartel.
After a few runs, Earl becomes one of the cartel’s trusted drug mules. Meanwhile, Chicago-based DEA special agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) reports to the Special Agent in Charge (Laurence Fishburne) of a hotbed of activity on his radar. This leads to stakeouts, busts, and other activities with Agent Treviño (Michael Peña). In spite of it all, nobody even bothered to question Earl about his newfound money. Even if it was cash only, his flower business was failing because of the internet to the point that SOMEBODY had to know something. If something were to go wrong, at least Earl paid the way for Ginny to get her degree in cosmetology.
When Colin and Earl do meet, it’s at the least likely location but they’re able to bond over putting work before family. How Colin didn’t figure it out at the time is beyond me. It’s like a cliche of cliches in that Earl is right in front of Colin’s nose and gets away so easily.
The Mule feels as if it’s just another opportunity for Clint Eastwood to take on a late career role as a character with regrets. It’s the actor’s first role in ten years following Gran Torino. While I’m sure the true story may be more interesting, it didn’t come off as compelling on screen. The most that I got out of it was that Earl Stone felt regret for putting more time into work rather than being there for his family. This would be fine if it didn’t come while his ex-wife, Mary, was laying on her death bed. These events shouldn’t be what sparks the regrets to hit like a freight train. Once he came into all this money, he should have expressed an interest in being there for his family.
There’s still something of a caring family man in Earl Stone. We don’t see it in the beginning when it really matters. Even though there’s a rift with his ex-wife and daughter, he still manages to show up for his granddaughter. When he does finally show that he cares for his family more than work, it’s too little too late. Earl may get redemption for his wrongs in the eye of his daughter but he gets taken away from them almost as soon as it happens.
Nick Schenk bases his script on a NY Times article that would make for a better screen story as a documentary. As a narrative feature, the film misses the mark.
Clint Eastwood may get a late career role in playing Earl Stone but The Mule doesn’t deliver as hoped.
DIRECTOR: Clint Eastwood
SCREENWRITER: Nick Schenk
CAST: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Dianne Wiest, Andy Garcia, Alison Eastwood, Taissa Farmiga, Ignacio Serricchio, Loren Dean, Eugene Cordero