Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Nick Schenk, inspired by Sam Dolnick’s The New York Times Magazine article ‘The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule.’
Runtime: 116 mins.
Australian release date: 24 January 2019
Previewed at: Golden Age Cinema, Sydney, on 21 January 2019.
Not to be confused with the blackly humorous 2014 Aussie film of the same name, which Leigh Whannell (the Saw and Insidious franchises) co-wrote, this film entitled The Mule is directed by the Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood. It was scripted by Nick Schenk (who also wrote Eastwood’s 2008 movie Gran Torino) after he read an article in The New York Times Magazine about a 90-year-old courier for the Sinaloa drug cartel and it’s the perfect story for an 89-year-old actor/director who, the odds would indicate, is approaching the end of an illustrious career. That’s because, in Eastwood’s and Schenk’s hands, this is not really a film about drugs and cartels at all. Rather, it’s a film about a man reaching the end of his years and coming to the realisation that he’s disappointed pretty much every member of his family over the course of his entire life, always putting himself first and them last. In short, it’s an old man’s film, a reflective film, but one that young viewers would be wise to learn from.
When we first encounter Earl Stone (Eastwood), he’s living alone in Peoria, Illinois, it’s 2005 and he’s running a mildly successful botanical business growing colourful daylilies for sale and show. He’s a charming guy, but he’s so caught up in his own world that he forgets to attend his daughter’s wedding (she’s played by Clint’s real-life daughter, Alison Eastwood), a sin she’s not prepared to forgive - ever. Cut to 12 years later and, surprise, surprise, Earl turns up at his grand-daughter Ginny’s (Taissa Farmiga) pre-nuptial celebration, only to run into his still angry daughter. She immediately accosts him, saying he must be there because he’s got nowhere else to go. And it’s true. His business has failed, the bank’s foreclosed on his mortgage, and he’s on the bones of his arse. Just as he’s leaving though, a young Latino guest says he might be able to get some work for him driving - just call this number - and before you know it, he’s the cartel’s number one delivery guy. But Earl still has some decency left so, when he receives word that his ex-wife (Diane Wiest) is dying, he drops everything to be by her bedside, even if he’s carrying his biggest load to date. The cartel’s not the only entity looking for him either; agents from the DEA (Laurence Fishburne, Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña) are also on his trail.
Schenk’s script bears some similarities to Gran Torino, so you can see why both writer and director were attracted to it. For one, Stone is casually racist and hasn’t caught up with modern-day racial sensibilities and, secondly, it features some of the same transformative themes about old dogs learning new tricks. There’s also the fact that Eastwood seems to like working with people he’s worked with before: Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, Michael Peña in Million Dollar Baby, Laurence Fishburne in Mystic River and his daughter Alison in three earlier titles. Behind the scenes, regular crew members include Deborah Hopper (who’s designed the costumes on almost every film the director has made since Mystic River and worked in the costume department as far back as 1985’s Pale Rider), Oscar-winning editor Joel Cox (who goes back even further than Hopper, having cut virtually everything of Eastwood’s since The Gauntlet in 1977 - plus, he was assistant editor the year before on The Outlaw Josey Wales) and production designer Kevin Ishioka (Sully, The 15:17 to Paris). Strangely though, his long-term director of photography, Tom Stern, is absent this time, having been replaced by the French-Canadian cinematographer Yves Bélanger. Also new to Eastwood’s movies is the great Cuban jazz trumpet maestro Arturo Sandoval, who was responsible for The Mule’s excellent music.
Another movie about an aging lawbreaker was last year’s Robert Redford-starrer The Old Man & The Gun which, coincidentally, was also based on a true story that first appeared in print. It, too, was about a charming crim but, unlike Redford’s career bank-robber, Eastwood’s character in The Mule is an almost accidental malefactor. Earl’s a man who kind of stumbled through his life, not realising the harm he was doing to those around him until it was almost too late, and the actor Eastwood portrays him beautifully. The director Eastwood, on the other hand, is fully aware of his capabilities and the ramifications of his actions. Long may he remain at the wheel.