In 2018, before my children raised the decibel level of the Cuff entourage, I went to see the Clint Eastwood movie The Mule—in part, because I am somewhat estranged from my own politically incorrect grandpa and his declamations. I loved Eastwood’s Gran Torino, and if I’m honest, just about every movie featuring the iconic western star. Watching him shock diverse theater audiences with tactless, old-fashioned behavior is one of life’s simple pleasures, and The Mule offered a generous helping.
But I was also interested to see how Eastwood’s generation (he turns 92 today) is coping with my America: the rootless, heterogenous, disoriented technocracy of the twenty-first century. In one man’s lifetime, we’ve become a society where friendships are formed online, not at the VFW; where broken families are the norm, not the exception; where Sunday church is a relic of the past. This is a poor birthday gift—do they deserve it?
Octogenarians like The Mule’s Earl Stone stand astride a full third of our nation’s history, tying its pieces together like the interstate highway system he drives as an unlikely bag man for the Sinaloa Cartel. Earl is no hardened criminal; unlike most modern cowboys Clint Eastwood has played, this titular character is a flirtatious, charming senior citizen who loves his prize day lilies and carries no gun. He’s also hurting: like many of his peers, his quest for success ruined whatever relationship he had with his family. Only his granddaughter Ginny sees the good in this jaded old man, and Earl is determined not to spoil his last hope for a human bond.
With Ginny’s wedding fast approaching, Earl’s only problem is money, which in his mind could give him one last chance to express love to his family. The internet has killed his flower business, just like the insurance company has killed the local VFW and the skyrocketing price of healthcare is killing his ex-wife. As with Leo Sharp, the World War II veteran on whose shocking true story The Mule is based, Earl is aging, down on his luck, and unfulfilled. This straightforward plot drives a jarring social commentary as the film’s subtext. Beneath each tragic or feel-good scene—the Eastwood touch—our blasé heartland drama becomes a profound criticism of values and assumptions, lamenting the impotence of quiet, withdrawn faith and the self-destruction of twenty-first-century America.
Inevitably, a movie about an unassuming old white man working for Mexican coke dealers is a movie about race and ethnicity. Eastwood doesn’t preach, but neither are The Mule’s racial conflict scenes entirely non prescriptive. Earl Stone is laughably tone-deaf, uttering such golden lines as “awful nice, helpin’ you negro folks out” and “you’re a couple beaners in a bowl full of crackers.” But he isn’t racist: he parties (and fraternizes) with the Sinaloans, stops to help a black family at the side of the road, and gladly calls out a culero regardless of skin tone.
Key scenes feature Eastwood’s own “get over it” race-realist perspective. DEA agents patrolling for drug traffickers enact a morality tale about the everyday need for commonsense racial profiling. An unsuspecting Latino motorist in a routine traffic stop becomes a parody as he rattles off statistics about police shootings. A white “chuckles and shucks” small-town sheriff is bought off with caramel popcorn.
Most significantly, the Mexican cartel members are people—human and struggling just like Earl and his family. Almost all are part-victim, part-culprit. And while Earl drifts meekly up the ladder of the murderous crime syndicate, he expresses genuine concern for his outlaw friends. He does the same for the relentless DEA agent (Bradley Cooper) who unknowingly pursues him in his cartel investigation. Earl is driven to remind everyone he meets: don’t waste your life as I did. Family comes first.
Here we come upon The Mule’s most perplexing quality. In the wasteland America of Earl Stone’s adventures, the glue that would have held society together—and prevented lawmen, gangsters, and octogenarians alike from throwing away their lives—has dried up. Sincere expressions of faith, the ties that bind, have been replaced by the every-man-for-himself, dog-eat-dog atomism that defines modern culture.
Wherever religious values appear, they are most noteworthy for their lack of relevance. Nobody in The Mule connects their troubles, or the troubles of society, with the obvious loss of hope and disdain for moral virtue that result from religious indifference. Our Lady of Guadalupe hovers above one of Earl’s debauched sex romps, printed on a throw pillow in the cartel’s headquarters. The DEA’s manhunt pauses for a long funeral scene in which the priest blathers incessantly about “optimism.” Nobody with a conscience ever confronts Earl about the objective wickedness of trucking hard drugs into South Side Chicago. Nobody prays.
It’s commonplace to hear old folks complain about the generations that have followed them. Earl Stone can’t stop grumbling about “young people on their phones” and any number of other technological and social changes. Yet how often do these critiques drill down to the root of the problem? How well does our grandparents’ generation perceive how dehumanized America has actually become?
Maybe changing times have slow-boiled, over decades, the ones who had to live through them. Or maybe that generation’s vaunted hope, faith, and optimism—to reprise The Mule’s funeral homily—was never authentic to begin with.
Everyone should watch The Mule to see how it montages these historical and philosophical tensions as a memoir of Eastwood’s own iconically American life—a retrospective from 1930 to 2018. Wrecked families have been the price of “updated” social mores; heightened racial conflict has been the price of civil rights; loneliness and dehumanization have been the price of longer lifespans and technologically improved “quality of living”; increasingly destructive social degradation has been the price of increasingly confident social engineering.
Meanwhile, the fading echoes of faith—relics of an America that Earl and the other characters have forgotten—ring just as hollow in The Mule as Earl’s pious invocation from the trailer: “I swear to God, this is the last one.”
Andrew Cuff is Communications Director at Beck & Stone where he leads institutional clients in communications consulting and brand tactics. Created is his editorial project. He and his wife (also a writer) have made their home in Latrobe, PA with their four children.