When The Last Laugh came out, it defined itself through the concept of aging and how it could ridicule it. While The Mule also finds definition through the lens of an octogenarian, it doesn’t define itself by his age, it merely adds to the story of redemption and understanding ones mistakes. While The Last Laugh flounders in its simplicity, The Mule has a wealth of feeling and life hidden underneath the surface waiting to be mined.
Following Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood), a retired florist who has gained a reputation among his friends of being a stand up guy. However on the flip side he has lost his family, too interested in the career that was always taking him away from them. When he faces financial difficulties with no way out he is presented with a simple way to make money by just driving. Despite the risk involved he begins transporting drugs to fund his life and tries to find a way to bring him back into his family’s orbit, despite the many mistakes he has made.
A story of parents and children and how mistakes and choices can carry down across generations, Earl is conflicted between what he looks like and who he is. Despite his affinity for making mistakes and trying to look good over actually being good, his ability to see his mistakes in others around him makes Earl a delight. The wisdom within him is never expressly shown but Eastwood as both actor and director manages to express it through the silence that permeates through the film. Earl’s psyche is the ultimate puzzle for the viewer to decipher and that is half the fun here.
Despite a living in the now mentality, Earl’s solitary existence bring his mistakes to the fore and show that underneath this sense of the walls closing in around him is the idea that he doesn’t have long to fix it. The smokescreen of how he lives his life hides the inadequacies he has been running from all his life. Unlike Eastwood’s conventional roles, Earl is deeply wounded but understands his fault in his own problems. This leads to a film that is heavily personal. It serves almost as a call to arms that despite things may be near the end, they aren’t finished yet and change is possible.
Aimed at the misfits, the people who don’t belong or at least feel that way, Eastwood and Earl deliver something you don’t expect. People’s expectations of Earl are what he is desperate to change and Eastwood cleverly makes Earl’s pride sing as his most vocal opponent to his own success. While a sub plot involving Bradley Cooper as a FBI agent hunting him plays on the idea that his choices are catching up to him, its his connection to his family and the stubbornness that has torn him from them that proves stronger than the cartel or police hunting him.
Full of untold stories, Earl is humanised by Eastwood in his best performance since Gran Torino. Earl is a man who has lived a long life, with Eastwood clearly reaching into his own past for inspiration. He fully encapsulates Earl. Equally as important to proceedings is a wonderfully bitter yet hopeful Dianne Wiest as Earl’s ex-wife Mary. How these two relate to each other and see through each others fronts forces you to do the same. Figuring out how much Earl sees of the business he is involved in and how much he really understands about the life he has found himself living is where the tension arises.
While Gran Torino used the idea of aging to tell as story about bigotry and the changing political landscape of America, The Mule uses it to point towards the timeless nature of redemption and living life in the real world. Earl might not want to know how to fix his mistakes, he may not even know half of the mistakes he has made but Eastwood the director makes the uncertain captivating and utterly natural and it is in this sweet spot that The Mule lives and thrives.