Clint Eastwood’s The Mule
an old man’s tale

by Robert Alpert

In Bronco Billy, which Clint Eastwood directed in 1980, Antoinette Lily, who has resisted the children’s fantasy of Bronco Billy’s Wild West show, asks Bronco Billy, an ex-convict for the attempted murder of his wife, “Are you for real?" “I’m who I want to be,” replies Bronco Billy, played by Clint Eastwood, who was then living with Sondra Locke, who plays Antoinette Lily.

The movie The Mule is based on Sam Dolnick’s article “There’s a True Story Behind ‘The Mule’: The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule” in The NY Times Magazine, June 2014.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Dolnick writes about a 90-year old drug courier, Leo Sharp—known by the nickname Tata or grandfather—who worked many years for the Mexican cartel headed by Joaquín Guzmán (El Chapo).

The movie The Mule originated in a NY Times Magazine article about a 90-year old former horticulturalist who became a Mexican drug cartel’s most successful mule.

A great grandfather who was also a World War II veteran, Sharp spent much of his life producing and selling small flowers, especially daylilies, and had acquired a national reputation through conventions, speaking engagements, newsletters, and his own annual catalogue. Dolnick describes how “[d]ay-lily enthusiasts used to make pilgrimages” to Sharp’s flower farms in Michigan City, Indiana and Apopka, Florida. As the Internet in the 1990s and early 2000s put an end to Sharp’s catalogue-based business, the grower, who had no criminal record, turned to driving the cartel’s drugs from Mexico to Detroit. With a respectable old man playing against type, it resulted in a highly profitable business venture for him as the number of kilos he transported with each trip increased.  Over a decade of driving, Sharp became the cartel’s “one-man cocaine fountain, working on a scale the D.E.A. had never encountered.” The article also documents how the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) through informants eventually arrested Sharp in 2012 and how Sharp later pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges, resulting in a sentence of three years in federal prison.

Nick Schenk, who had written the screenplay for Gran Torino (2008), wrote the screenplay for The Mule, and, like Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood both directed and starred in The Mule. The movie largely follows Dolnick’s detailed article, including Sharp’s eccentricities as a grandfatherly courier—erratic driving, eccentric and slovenly dress, an “uncertain gait,” difficulty in hearing and seeing, and stopping to enjoy local restaurants during his cross-country drives for the cartel.[2] The movie changes only a few significant details from Dolnick’s article, such as changing the route ending in Detroit, where Gran Torino took place, to Chicago; and Leo Sharp becomes the character Earl Stone, a Korean War veteran, like Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino. Yet much of Dolnick’s article remains. Earl Stone, played by the 88-year old Eastwood, has spent much of his life as a professional horticulturalist and achieved fame in a field that the Internet ended, resulting in his becoming a drug courier for a Mexican cartel. His value as a driver results from his lack of a criminal record, his not conforming to the stereotypical image of a courier, and his eccentricities that make it impossible for law enforcement—or the cartel, for that matter—to predict his routes, including unscheduled stops at celebrated, local restaurants and pleasurable drives through scenic national parks. Moreover, like the article, the movie also focuses on how DEA agents discover and eventually arrest Tapa, the cartel’s most “prolific” courier, through an informant. Earl Stone, like Leo Sharp, pleads guilty and is remanded from the courthouse to a federal prison.  

The camera then pulls out to reveal that Stone’s in prison. Clint Eastwood’s name as director and producer appears on a credit

IMDb succinctly summarizes the plot:

“A 90-year-old horticulturist and Korean War veteran is caught transporting $3 million worth of cocaine through Illinois for a Mexican drug cartel.”

While commercially successful—surely due, in part, not only to Eastwood’s fame but also to the classic editing, shot compositions and dramatic narrative structure without numbing CGI effects—movie reviewers were less enthusiastic and mixed in their views, critiquing the film’s clichés, lack of realism as well as the racism and sexism of its central character.[3] In contrast, Gran Torino released 10 years earlier was both commercially and critically successful. It had openly critiqued the Eastwood mythology that had developed over the 50 years during which Eastwood had starred in or directed or both approximately 50 films, beginning with his appearance as the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and his 1971 directorial debut in Play Misty for Me as a radio disc jockey. Gran Torino’s elegiac tone evoked the mythology that Eastwood had created—the Man with No Name, Dirty Harry and William Munny—only to observe the loneliness of his American hero and the darkness at the center of the mythology. [4]

The Mule, however, is more personal. It’s akin to Eastwood’s earlier, less commercially successful and somewhat critically overlooked Bronco Billy (1980).  Directed by and starring Eastwood as Bronco Billy McCoy (named after Bronco Billy Anderson, the first cowboy film star and the director of dozens of short, silent westerns), Bronco Billy is a children's fairy tale about a small, traveling Wild West show with Eastwood as the boss of a group of misfits, alcoholics and ex-convicts. The film co-stars Sondra Locke as Antoinette Lily, an East Coast heiress who has married only so that she’ll inherit a large family fortune and initially has only contempt for Bronco Billy and his cowboy fantasy as the “fastest gun in the West”. By the end of the film, however, she falls in love with him and chooses to join his motley crew. Moreover, the film openly revels in the madness of its fantasy, reflected in a happy ending made possible only by the efforts of the patients of a mental institution and its chief psychiatrist. That Eastwood’s own father was apparently a shoe salesman[5]—like Bronco Billy, who dropped his shoehorn and chose to become a circus cowboy—and that Sondra Locke was then Eastwood’s lover—a relationship that would end many years later in a bitter palimony fight—underscore how personal Bronco Billy was to Eastwood. Reflecting Eastwood’s own self-satisfaction with his career choice as actor and director, Eastwood could have been speaking for himself in an exchange in that film with Antoinette Lily. It’s an intimate, somewhat awkward moment in which a fleeting look of madness appears on his character Bronco Billy’s face:

Antoinette Lilly: Are you for real?
Bronco Billy McCoy: I'm who I want to be.

Released almost simultaneously with the belated announcement of Locke’s death at age 74,[6] The Mule reflects upon Eastwood’s career choice nearly 40 years later. Thus, the movie takes place in the present, not several years ago as in Dolnick’s article. Moreover, a state trooper casually comments that Stone does a good Jimmy Stewart imitation, thereby evoking the iconic myth of decency in the face of social corruption that Eastwood as Hollywood star has embodied—though with a streak of violence, such as, for example, his role as the Preacher in Pale Rider (1985) or Bill Munny in Unforgiven (1992). That Eastwood dedicates the film to “Pierre and Richard,” Pierre Rissient and Richard Schickel, two recently deceased friends and movie critics, further underscores that The Mule is intended to be personal.

Moreover, while family has often played a role in Eastwood’s films—from the nontraditional, improvisational families in Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Bronco Billy to the more constraining, traditional families in Pale Rider (1985),  Unforgiven (1992)  and The Bridges of Madison County (1995) to the mean spirited, vicious families in Million Dollar Baby (2004) and Gran TorinoThe Mule places the events of Earl Stone’s life as both horticulturist and drug courier squarely within the context of family.

Eastwood’s own daughter, Alison Eastwood, plays his estranged daughter Iris in the movie. Significantly, too, Bradley Cooper, who had portrayed Chris Kyle as a Navy SEAL estranged from his family in Eastwood’s The Sniper (2014), enacts the role of DEA Special Agent Jeffrey Moore (renamed Colin Bates in the movie), and he plays Bates as a character for whom work and family are in conflict. Bates’ boss, DEA Special Agent in Charge (Laurence Fishburne), asks but doesn’t care whether Bates’ family is adjusting to his career move to Chicago, and Bates, in turn, expresses incredulity that his partner (Michael Peña) has five children. Moreover, Eastwood’s Earl Stone becomes, in effect, Bates’ mentor and confidant on matters of family, lecturing (and confessing to) Cooper’s DEA Special Agent Bates on the need to place family over career. And Bates’ acknowledgement of the wisdom of Stone’s advice (even as he’s arresting Stone) is soon followed by Stone’s daughter Iris’ darkly humorous comment in the courtroom scene that with Stone in federal prison, she’ll at least now know where to find her father who has spent his entire life on the road.

The film dramatizes the sexism and often misogyny for which Eastwood is known through its equating of family with women. Earl Stone’s family from which he is estranged consists entirely of women—his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest), his daughter Iris, and his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Stone is contemptuous of them, attending a convention rather than Iris’ wedding and later dismissively commenting on how women love that sort of thing, wedding anniversaries, even as he’s supposedly lecturing Bates on the importance of family events so as to avoid “ah, shit” moments.  In another incident, while traveling on the road for the drug cartel, Stone mocks the gang of women bikers who identify themselves as “Dykes on Bikes,” recalling an earlier episode in The Gauntlet (1977), where Eastwood’s character, a cop named Ben Shockley, dispatches a biker, who’s a woman, in a point-of-view shot that underscores the violence of the gesture and Shockley’s hatred of women. A philanderer, the 90-year old Stone later sleeps in his motel room with two prostitutes to the irritation of the drug cartel’s handler, Julio (Ignacio Serricchio), who, while seemingly frustrated with Stone’s failure to follow the instructed schedule, is plainly jealous of the openly gleeful Stone. Women are either castrating bitches (a word which Stones mutters under his breath to describe his ex-wife Mary when she along with their daughter Iris refuses to attend, if he attends, their granddaughter Ginny’s pre-marital party) or prostitutes. No scene is more misogynistic than the party at the palatial home in Mexico of Latón (Andy Garcia), the drug cartel boss, where scantily clad women attend to the men, including two women assigned by Latón to make certain that Stone “enjoys himself.” Not surprisingly, at his trial Stone refuses to follow the advice of his lawyer, a woman, and, upon pleading guilty, the judge, also a woman, abruptly remands him to the custody of the U.S. Marshal. If women are equated with family, then women continually threaten Earl Stone’s freedom of life on the road, the defining characteristic of his masculinity.

Yet The Mule is ultimately critical of Stone’s masculinity—both its rewards and the losses that it has entailed. As the movie’s promotional slogan succinctly points out in anticipation of Stone’s belated acknowledgement of mistakes made, “Nobody runs forever.” While based on Dolnick’s nonfictional recounting of Leo Sharp’s life as a horticulturist and drug courier, The Mule is also a fictional tale about Clint Eastwood’s life. Commercially successful and widely admired like Sharp, Eastwood has not only won numerous professional awards, including Academy Awards and Lifetime Achievement Awards, but has also maintained his independence, beginning with the formation in 1967 of his own production company, Malpaso. The film is, in part, therefore, about the limitations of that independence and simultaneously a critique of contemporary big business.

The film presents the drug cartel, in particular, as simply another form of big business. Significantly, it’s the development of the Internet that kills Stone’s horticulture farm known for its daylilies. While the Internet’s early advocates, such as John Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (1996), touted its supposedly libertarian culture, the Internet has become the means for control by a few global companies, such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. Stone’s lack of familiarity with how to operate the smartphone that the drug cartel requires, including his ignorance of texting, and the reason for discarding the phone after each trip, serves as both a source of humor and a commentary on the cartel’s operation. There’s an irony to Special Agent Bates’ mocking insistence that the DEA informer continue to be a “good cartel employee.” That both a highway trooper and a cartel enforcer tell Stone at different moments to “drive safely” underscores how law enforcement and the cartel are both businesses. In contrast to Latón, who had appreciated Tata’s unpredictability, the cartel lieutenant, who assassinates Latón and assumes power, represents a shift from the cartel as small entrepreneurial business to conglomerate business model. Thus, the new cartel leadership quickly kills off those who resist the cartel’s schedules, insisting upon rigid adherence to “freight manifestos” so as to track the cartel’s many shipments. That the DEA is able to track the cartel’s mules and their routes through these “freight manifestos” and then learns of the cartel’s plans by Internet surveillance—intercepting smartphone conversations and using GPS to locate its couriers—reflects how government is simply a larger, more technologically sophisticated business than the cartel, which is only belatedly adopting to a changing, global culture.

The management of the reorganized cartel makes plain to Earl that he must follow exactly its program or face the possible consequences – a body in a trunk “Let’s make some money!” a gang member enthuses. Earl blankly stares straight ahead.