The story of Leo Sharp, horticulturalist and cocaine smuggler for the Midwest pipeline of El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel, is that of a classic American fuck-up. By the time he was arrested in a DEA operation at the age of 87, he had been moving hundreds of kilos of coke to Detroit and duffel bags of cash back to Tucson for as long as a decade. Before that, he cultivated and sold the small, beautiful flowers called daylilies from his farm outside Michigan City, Indiana, just over the border from Chicago; his defense would claim that it was the decline of the farm and of his own mental faculties that led Sharp into a career smuggling drugs. In court, he appeared unkempt and doddering, though there were some lingering questions about whether he was really that senile or playing for sympathy.
In Clint Eastwood’s The Mule, a fictionalized version of Sharp’s story, he becomes Earl Stone, “Mr. Daylily” of Peoria, Illinois. The role is the 88-year-old Eastwood’s first since Trouble with the Curve (2012). He appears stooped, his voice murmuring and watery. So one obvious way of reading The Mule is that it’s an old man’s movie about what it means to be old, with many regretful and cranky notes that make it hard to separate the actor-director from the character. The drug plot and chase elements are almost secondary, to the point that one occasionally forgets that The Mule is supposed to be about the bloody business of cocaine trafficking. Sharp’s transformation into a drug smuggler probably happened over many years, but Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk dispatch with Stone’s in one awkward scene in which a stranger gives him business card outside of his granddaughter’s engagement party, to which the old man has shown up unexpectedly after missing basically ever family function for decades. Eastwood doesn’t even bother depicting the call; next thing we know, Stone is pulling into a tire shop in Arizona to collect his first load.
Very little of what happens in The Mule would pass for crime-thriller material, and yet it still devotes considerable screen time to Stone’s cartel handlers and to the two Chicago-based DEA agents (Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña) who eventually pick up his trail. Throughout, Eastwood’s direction is extremely casual. He stages the film’s modest approximation of a “Heat moment” in a Waffle House and offers us many shots of himself driving a truck through scenic country while croaking along to the radio. Compared to the tension of American Sniper or the theatrics of Sully (arguably his best film of the 2010s), The Mule feels offhand; like this year’s 15:17 to Paris, it might be accused of indulging in some of Eastwood’s worst tendencies. But there’s something there, glinting. The Mule, which begins and ends with shots of flowers, locates the crushing irony of Stone’s life not in the idea that an old-timer like him would turn to trafficking coke, but in his previous vocation—in the decades he devoted to growing daylilies (so called because they usually wilt after 24 hours) while missing all those unique moments of his own life.
The theme is Eastwood’s oldest: the question of whether wrongs can ever make a right. Stone uses his ill-gotten wealth to buy back his foreclosed daylily farm, fix the local VFW (he’s a Korean War vet), and repair his relationship with his grandkid (Taissa Farmiga), estranged daughter (Alison Eastwood), and ex-wife (Dianne Wiest). But beyond the level of plot, the values of The Mule are implied in its unhurried pace—the scenes of long drives, pulled-pork sandwiches, ice cream, and increasingly chummy banter between Stone and the cartel guys that suggest a filmmaker trying to make up for some lost time of his own. (It appears that Eastwood also regrets not spending more of his career filming butts, as he devotes an entire montage to the subject.) At the end, he offers one bold stroke, deflating the urgency of a climax to focus entirely on the marriage Stone let fall apart. No one would mistake the result for anything but the work of an old man: grumpy, at times slow or disorganized, but wise about remorse.