Clint Eastwood is old, but is that supposed to make it okay that The Mule is a lazy piece of racist nonsense? The entire film plays like a morality tale whose main point seems to be, “You can be a really terrible person, but you might still have a chance at forgiveness, no matter how old you are.”
Just in case you think I’m being a snowflake here, the very first lines of this film are Eastwood’s character Earl Stone saying: “Hey José, what’s with the taco wagon? It’s like you were born to be deported.” I’m not making that up. I think writer Nick Schenk and Eastwood himself figured it was fine for the main character to be wildly racist, because, he throws in some (super condescending) Spanish now and then and he’s a war veteran who “doesn’t know any better.”
The whole premise of the film is based on the real-life story of Leo Sharp, who at the age of 90 began to drive for the Mexican drug cartels. In the movie, Stone (modeled on Sharp) decides to become a drug mule after his daylily farm gets foreclosed on and he comes to the absurd conclusion that the only way to get back in good with his family is to try to buy their affection. It’s clear from the first scenes of the film that Stone is not a great, or even good, guy. He chooses to attend an award ceremony for his flowers instead of his only daughter’s wedding and was an unapologetic, philandering, absentee husband and father his entire life. Let me make this clear: This is not a redemption tale. At its core, it’s a movie about an old white man trying to avoid slipping into irrelevancy. The entire film plays like an allegory for the shifting demographics of the U.S. and we’re supposed to see the white men as the sympathetic losers in Eastwood’s eyes. Perhaps the most glaring oversight in the script is the fact that they never outright address the fact that Stone’s white privilege is what paves the way for him to become one of the most profitable drug mules in the cartel’s history. It’s pretty easy to move tons of cocaine across states if you’re an old white dude.
The whole taco truck deportation joke that opens the film is just scraping the surface of the casual racism Eastwood deals in this film, from calling a black family to “negroes” to shouting “Bye Dykes!” to a crew of motorcycle-riding lesbians, it feels like the writer and Eastwood himself are daring the audience to be offended. There is a scene of overt police profiling in which Stone rescues the two cartel members sent to keep an eye on him, and another in which a Latino man unrelated to the cartel is pulled over by the DEA and emphasizes that these are the “most dangerous 5 minutes” in his life. This scene could have been meaningful and powerful, but instead, Eastwood directs it as a hysterical person of color who can do nothing more than repeat this (accurate) factoid over and over again.
The entire film jumps through such hoops to try to make us see Stone as a man who is more than the sum of his mistakes while giving no other characters any depth or dimension. The women in the film are afterthoughts, even Stone’s own family, who come across as bitter and angry (rightfully so) but not much else until Diane West’s very last scenes. Even then, those moments never earn the emotional resonance they want us to feel and thus are forced and heavy-handed.
The Latinos in the film fair no better, with Andy Garcia’s formidable acting talents wasted on depicting a caricature of a drug cartel leader. There are points in the film where the cartel members are the most sympathetic characters on screen because, in essence, this is a film about a 90-year-old man who wakes up one day and realizes what an asshole he’s been to everyone who matters in his life. Oops! The cartel members, on the other hand, have lived their lives fully aware of the price to be paid for their choices. The most poignant of these moments happens when Stone, riding high and partying hard with the cartel tells his minder Julio (played by Ignacio Serricchio) that he should try to “Get out of the cartel,” as if he joining a cartel is like joining a fitness club. Julio looks incredulously at Stone and tells him that the cartel defines him and that he would never leave their leader Laton (Andy Garcia), who pulled him off the street as a kid and gave his life purpose where there had been none.
That conversation sums up all of the blind spots in Eastwood’s film. He’s attempting to mine sympathy for a man who spent his whole life selfishly only caring about himself, realizes too late what a mess he’s made and then goes on to make even worse decisions in a last-ditch attempt to redeem himself. It’s just too little, too late and he fate is that he is, in fact, doomed to irrelevancy.