Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a Midwestern horticulturalist who is so devoted to his flowers that he’s neglected and alienated most of his family, including his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest). But with his business failing, and foreclosure looming, Earl receives an unexpected proposition: How would he feel about driving cross-country to drop off packages in duffel bags? He’ll receive substantial sums for his efforts, but he has to obey his employers’ orders to the letter — and he can never look in the bags.
It becomes quickly obvious that Earl has been hired to be a drug mule, and one of The Mule’s more interesting aspects is that this elderly man doesn’t really question the legality of this work. From Earl’s perspective, bills need to be paid, a granddaughter’s wedding needs to be financed, and failing community institutions could use the financial help — as far as he’s concerned, he’s participating in a victimless crime.
That’s not the perspective shared by Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious Chicago DEA agent trying to crack down on this cartel — if only he can figure out who’s transporting their drugs. The Mule milks the irony of the cartel hiring an older white man for this job: Bates and his partner (Michael Peña) are so busy looking for young Mexicans that they never suspect that this grizzled grandpa is their man.
The movie also demonstrates how Earl’s white privilege allows him to navigate around law enforcement in ways that his Mexican counterparts cannot. There’s an unspoken bitter juxtaposition coursing through the narrative: Earl has fouled up his excellent life through his own foolishness, while the lower-working-class cartel underlings around him have never had the opportunities he’s thoughtlessly wasted. While this defiantly unflashy film may similarly feel out of step, long on mawkishness and short on dynamic, arresting moments, the purity of its gently mournful tone stays with you.