The exceptional pleasure of Clint Eastwood’s The Mule begins with its difference: Against today’s dominant comic-book version of behavior, it tells the casually realistic story of retired Korean War veteran and horticulturalist Earl Stone (lanky, gnarled Squint Eastwood), who matter-of-factly participates in the drug trade. He makes deliveries from El Paso to Chicago for a Mexican cartel (100 kilos per month, totaling $3 million). Rascally Stone — a roustabout who likes growing day lilies, driving, and doing more than flirting — recalls classical, Old Hollywood moralism. No wonder it’s been ignored by this year’s award hacks.
Embodying the millennium’s stressed economic class, Stone slips the law out of practicality — he needs funds to appease the granddaughter, daughter, and ex-wife, from whom he is estranged yet whom he still loves. Despite his rambling, Stone keeps his commitments. He’s like those Iraq War vets in Alan Rudolph’s Ray Meets Helen who declared, “We served our country so nothing scares us.” Yet Stone never boasts. He can stare down a goon and ask, “What do you get out of it, Slick?”
Director Eastwood’s restraint feels like middle-of-the-road conservatism; when applied to the film’s contemporary ethnic expansion — and featuring reactions of the country’s white, formerly dominant social group — it achieves new rich classical Americana. Stone encounters dykes on bikes and a black family stranded on a highway and refurbishes a burnt-out VFW hall. In one other extraordinary incident, he witnesses a Mexican motorist encountering an officious highway patrolman.
This scene shows that Eastwood is perhaps the only Hollywood filmmaker willing to admit the self-conscious wariness on both sides of that typical American opposition. The confrontation is funny, rather than tragic, because Eastwood and screenwriter Sam Dolnick understand that before stereotypical American social tragedy occurs, there is always American knowingness — particularly in the comic drama of civilian–authority opposition. The Mexican driver is fully aware of the situation’s grave potential (“This is the most dangerous five minutes of my life — being pulled over by law enforcement”), as is the white cop who stops him.
It’s neither satire nor sour or cynical. Eastwood imparts the complications of modern American social experience. This moment surpasses Green Book, The Hate U Give, and all the other movies spawned from the last America-hating spasms of the Obama era that connected social authority with racism, depicting non-whites as fateful victims. Eastwood’s non-jaundiced complexity is refreshing.
The Mule also seems odd — contradicting Hollywood cynicism — because it transcends genre expectations. While jocular about crime (DEA drug busts are arranged for media PR), it’s not really a crime movie, certainly not in that puerile way of Michael Mann neo-noirs (Heat, Public Enemies) reliant on remote-control TV narrative and armchair nihilism. Instead, Eastwood mixes gangster and police motifs using war-vet irony and old-man-, end-of-the-road-flick equanimity: The pragmatic Sinaloa cartel hires Stone for his harmless appearance. They’re bemused at his unblemished driving record (“How can we tell him how to drive, he’s 90 years old!”) and that he sings familiar pop-folk songs (even Buster Scruggs’s “Cool Water”) as he tools along highways through the expansive countryside. A brief shot of Stone catching his own reflection in the rearview mirror alerts us to his secret conscience.
Not just named for a drug smuggler, The Mule acknowledges our beast-of-burden countrymen — morally ambivalent figures who go largely ignored, their consciousness being out of step with progressive fashion. It’s part of a nascent termite genre of modern self-examination such as Rudolph’s poetic Ray Meets Helen and David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun and Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
The Mule’s character studies are also portraits of seldom-seen yet imminently shared American experience: Hillary’s “deplorables.” None of these characters fit a P.C. checklist (Andy Garcia and Dianne Wiest are too idiosyncratic to stereotype). Freewheeling Stone is paralleled with a young DEA loner (Bradley Cooper) and each man has a wonderful subplot with younger cartel workers — a fatherless Sinaloa thug, a gay Filipino go-getter — whose insecurities convey an authentic masculine subtext. The sense of pecking-order competition among all these men highlights Stone’s seasoned personality traits as unassuming American westerns used to do.
Movie classicism — the practice of traditional craft — has become rare, and The Mule is the year’s best example of modest excellence. Nothing here equals the doubled-reality cell-phone moment in Eastwood’s daring, experimental The 15:17 to Paris, but The Mule’s straightforward storytelling stays coherent, sparks reflection, and gathers meaning. Its depth might shock viewers who expect to have their self-righteousness pampered. “You lived so long you lost your filter,” Stone is told. “Never realized I had one,” Eastwood answers back. Modesty becomes this actor-auteur’s refinement.