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Clint Eastwood’s characters play by their own rules. Take, for instance, his unconventional gunslingers—vengeful police detective Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry) and fatherly hit man William Munny (Unforgiven). In the new film The Mule, Earl Stone (Eastwood), too, is just doing his job—although the job involves transporting illegal drugs across the country. He’s a “mule” for a Mexican drug cartel. Eastwood is at his best when his protagonists have a sense of their fallenness. Stone, though, seems oblivious to his sins.
The Mule changes names and some details, but was inspired by a true story reported in The New York Times Magazine in 2014. Stone is a 90-year-old horticulturalist who specializes in growing day lilies and destroying relationships. He puts work first, estranging his wife (Dianne Wiest) and daughter (Eastwood’s own daughter, Alison Eastwood). Only a granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga) welcomes Stone at the few family functions he doesn’t skip.
Happenstance leads Stone into a casual encounter with a member of the drug cartel, who is impressed with Stone’s ticket-free driving record. Stone agrees to carry a small load of drugs in the bed of his pickup from a location in the Southwest back to Chicago.
The wrinkled, wiry driver becomes the cartel’s top mule, hauling hundreds of kilos of cocaine per trip, for which he’s paid in big envelopes bursting with bundles of $100 bills. Stone’s success is due in part to his self-centeredness. He begins to take liberties with his cartel handlers’ instructions, going off route on personal errands and setting his own timetable. His unpredictability frustrates his handlers but also wiretapping Drug Enforcement Administration agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper), who’s tasked with arresting “Tata”—as Stone’s handlers affectionately call him. Will the joyride last?
Apart from its problematic material (R-rated language—mucho of it en español—along with brief nudity and some nearly nude dancers), The Mule is an entertaining story. But the film doesn’t measure up to 1992’s Unforgiven (for which Eastwood won Oscars for best picture and best director and a nomination for best actor). That’s because, in my view, Stone’s amorality dehumanizes him.
Perhaps the 88-year-old Eastwood is simply saying that a man’s gotta work. In The Plague (1947), Albert Camus claimed, “The truth is that everyone is bored and devotes himself to cultivating habits.” The “authentic man” must choose a duty—any duty—and stick to it. But while the (French) existentialist worldview may seem noble, few people are comfortable ceding autonomy to others.
Or is Eastwood suggesting that poverty justifies lawlessness, an increasingly popular notion? The internet has ruined his flower business, Stone gripes, so he turns to crime. And he does largely invest his ill-gotten gains in benevolent projects: his granddaughter’s wedding and repairs to a fire-damaged community building. Still, stealing a loaf of bread when you’re hungry is one thing, but feeding a city’s drug habit is another altogether.
Callahan and Munny are affected by their choices: Dirty Harry throws his badge into a lake, and Munny descends into madness. The mule’s end may be touching, but it’s not thoughtful, for Stone’s no different a man than he ever was.