Clint Eastwood has taken several stabs at a swan song, and with The Mule he might have finally found the perfect way to bow out. Based on the true story of an 87-year-old military veteran and horticulturalist turned drug-runner – Eastwood has interwoven the character with himself, creating a touching and candid sign-off for one of cinema’s most legendary filmmakers.
The part-fictionalised character, Earl Stone, is pure Eastwood – a womanising, innocently un-PC rogue. Long-divorced, Earl always put his business ahead of his wife and kids. After failing to show up at yet another family function, and with his livelihood left behind by a booming online industry, a chance meeting offers him what he’s looking for – an easy way to make a lot of money. At first naive to what he is doing, he uses his newfound wealth to try and win back some family affection.
Many details are true to life – but his family is entirely fictional. This reveals the kind of story Eastwood wanted to make, using the drug-mule set-up as a backdrop. Earl doesn’t play by the cartel’s rules, and when new management takes over he is threatened with death if he deviates from their instructions. Then Earl hears that his ex-wife is on her death bed and wants to see him – forcing him to decide whether to risk his life to finally do the right thing by his family.
Eastwood relishes showing that at 88 he is still the worldly epitome of macho-cool – gruff and sneering, attracting women a fraction of his age, but with a so-called heart of gold. Despite this, The Mule is first and foremost about prioritising family. Bradley Cooper plays the cop on Eastwood’s tail, and there is a moving scene where Eastwood warns him not to make the same mistakes he did, and lose his family in pursuit of a career.
In the end Earl learns from his mistakes, and accepts his fate. Is Eastwood drawing another parallel, suggesting he had wrong priorities in life, but at 88 it’s all too late? But there’s no spiritual solace for him. Early in the film Earl changes the radio station in his truck from a gospel broadcast to oldies to sing along to on the road, resigned to the inevitable doom ahead. The credits roll on a melancholic song with lyrics that could be just as much about Clint as Earl, ‘Don’t Let the Old Man In’.
★★★★☆ A simple story about a tragic character – a poignant potential curtain call from Clint.