Earl Stone is a 90-year-old former horticulturalist who’s drifting toward the end of things. And he knows it.
It’s not that he’s sick. He’s just old. And his life is a screwed-up mess. Because of past poor choices, he has very little to live for. His ex-wife hates him, his adult daughter refuses to stand in the same room with him, and his business and home are in the final stages of foreclosure.
The lone bright spot? He still has enough of a threadbare connection with his granddaughter, Ginny, to be invited to her engagement party. But when he actual does show up, his ex-wife, Mary, gets so angry that the party comes to screeching halt ’til he shuffles away.
It’s at that point, however, that a young friend of Ginny’s approaches the old man out by Earl’s beat-up old truck. He’d heard that Earl had done a lot of traveling for his business, and he makes note of all the state stickers that Earl sports in his truck’s back window.
Yep, 41 states out of 50. And he never even had a single ticket in all those many, many miles, Earl reports—grasping at one thing he can still feel proud of.
Then the guy surprises Earl by offering him a number he can call if he might just happen to be looking for work. It’s not a huge assumption that he might be game for a job, since most all of Earl’s remaining belongings are piled in the back of his truck. But it is a surprise nonetheless.
What kind of work is it?
“Just driving,” the guy reports. Hitting the road and getting from here to there, safe and sound. Just a single trip there and back. Pays well, too. “Hey, the money could be a great help to your granddaughter,” the guy says, nodding toward the small party that Earl was supposed to help pay for, but couldn’t.
Earl glances guiltily back at the house he’s just slunk away from. He would like to help. He’s done so many stupid things and hurt so many of the people he really cares for. It would be nice to give a little something. Flowers for the wedding, maybe?
He knows flowers.
He knows driving.
And he knows how to get from here to there with his mouth shut. That’s one thing the guy didn’t mention, but Earl isn’t stupid. Nobody pays you good money just to take a road trip. He’ll probably have to transport something illegal, Earl reasons as he drives away from the party.
But you know what? For Earl, that’s OK. He’s old. He doesn’t have a lot to live for anymore anyway. And this could be something that might help Ginny, just a little bit.
Besides, it’ll only be this one time …
Actually, it turns out that it’s not just one trip. After Earl gets the cash and helps to pay for part of Ginny’s wedding reception and make a house payment, there are other needs. He takes more and more trips to help people he knows and cares about: He helps repair the VFW after a fire, he pays for Ginny to finish school, etc. The problem is, his newfound desire to help others can seemingly only happen if he continues doing something illegal, which also drives him deeper and deeper under the control of the local drug cartel.
Bit by bit, as Earl makes his trips and helps others, he starts realizing all the ways he’s failed in the past. And he begins making amends with family members. When his ex, Mary, falls ill, he even puts his own life on the line—breaking the cartel’s strict rules—in order to be by her bedside, apologizing for his past actions and speaking of his love.
Even though she has no idea how Earl is earning his newfound money, Mary definitely recognizes how he’s spending it, and the efforts he’s making to use the money for good. But she also tells him, “You didn’t have to get rich for us to want you to be around.” She explains that he just needed to be more available to them and to be the husband and father they wanted him to be.
You see, for most of Earl’s life, he kept running away on business trips. “They got to see the wonderful man you are,” not us,” she tells him. And Earl laments his own foolishness: “I thought it was more important to be somebody out there, instead of the d–ned failure I was here.” He admits that money isn’t the answer, stating that the one thing he can’t buy is the one thing he now needs most: time.
Because of his positive choices with his family, even Earl’s estranged daughter begins to open up to his overtures. “You’re just a late bloomer,” she tells him. We see a number of cases where the family grows closer. The change impacts Earl deeply and he tells another, younger man not to make the same mistakes he made, suggesting that it’s never too late to start anew.
And to the film’s credit, Earl ultimately takes responsibility for the choices he’s made and pays the penalty required.
When Ginny graduates from college, Mary says, “Thank God she got enough money to finish school.” “Yeah, thank God,” Earl repeats.
Earl definitely appreciates the attention of a beautiful woman. And it’s implied that in the past, that was one of the reasons that his marriage came to an end.
In the present, Earl welcomes two young prostitutes into his motel room. (They exit early the next morning.) And a drug cartel boss also “gives” Earl the services of a bikini-clad woman. She straddles the shirtless Earl on a bed. Another woman arrives as well. Her bikini top is removed. She joins them on the bed.
A lavish pool party at a huge mansion features scores of women in barely-there swimsuits. They dance, twerk and grind against male guests and each other. At one point, the camera takes time to ogle a number of the women’s nearly naked backsides.
During one trip, Earl meets a group of women motorcyclists who declare themselves “Dykes on Bikes.” When Mary asks Earl how he’s earning his money, he jokes that he’s become a “high-end gigolo.”
Though we don’t see much messy violence, there is a constant threat that men with automatic weapons and pistols might show up and start shooting. We see a man’s reaction as he’s shot (bloodlessly) from behind and falls backward, dead. The camera glimpses a dead and lightly blooded corpse in someone’s car trunk. Several folks are held at gunpoint by cartel thugs or DEA agents. One large man gets manhandled and slammed violently to a concrete walkway.
Perhaps the most disturbing moment of violence happens when cartel thugs jam guns into Earl’s ribs and shove him around. They threaten his life and promise to leave his body in a deserted field. We don’t see anything overly painful take place, but the 90-year-old’s frailness is evident. Later we see him driving with blood streaming from wounds on his face.
Some 20 f-words and about 20 s-words join uses of “a–hole,” “d–n,” “h—” and “b–ch.” God’s and Jesus’ names are misused 10 times total (with the former combined twice with “d–n”).
Surprisingly, for a movie about a drug mule, we don’t actually see much in the way of drugs. We do see Earl look into one of the many bags he transports, revealing large packages of heroin. DEA agents state that over his 12 or 13 trips, Earl has transported hundreds of kilos of the drug between states.
Earl isn’t a man to shy away from the bar. We see him and others at parties, celebrations, and other locations drinking beer, wine, hard alcohol and champagne.
Several drug cartel members smoke cigars.
Earl stops to help a black couple whose car has a flat. He reports that he’s glad to help the “negros,” before they correct him on his choice of words. Earl also calls two Mexican guys a pair of “beaners.”
Clint Eastwood is a seasoned actor and a gifted director who has an innate moviemaking ability. And The Mule benefits from all those strengths.
It’s not just an engaging story about an elderly man who flounders deeply in dangerous waters, but also a poignantly emotional cautionary tale that encourages viewers to stop worrying so much about the grinding daily flotsam they’re wading through and turn toward more meaningful things. Focus instead on the stuff of true value, the story suggests, the family you love, the people you need and the upright choices you can make.
This is not, however, a family film.
Like the wisecracking and shuffling old grumbler at its core, The Mule has its caustic side. (How can a movie about a cartel drug courier not?) It’s rife with foul language, as well as the constant threat of violence, and it casts a number of sexual leers at barely clothed (or, in one case, topless) women.
This film’s troubling elements don’t negate its virtues, but they certainly make it a more difficult date-night companion.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.