In 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arrested famed American horticulturist Leo Sharp for smuggling thousands of pounds of Sinaloa Drug Cartel cocaine into the U.S. from Mexico over a period of more than a decade. At the time of his arrest, Sharp was 87 years old.
A decorated Second World War veteran whose horticultural skills earned him a global reputation, Sharp’s fortunes turned sour when his flower farm hit a financial skid, prompting him to become a late-in-life drug mule after making contact with the cartel through Mexican labourers he employed. Sharp, for his part, managed to avoid detection for years simply by virtue of his age; DEA agents never suspected a senior citizen would prove one of the most prolific and successful drug runners in the country. And it’s Sharp’s story that lies at the heart of The Mule, the big screen adaptation loosely based on the New York Times investigative feature on his exploits.
Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood pulls double duty as star and director of the film for the first time since 2008’s Gran Torino, playing Earl Stone, a character based on Leo Sharp. At 88 years old Eastwood is around the same age as Sharp was when he was finally arrested, and the plot mirrors many aspects of the real-life story. But what proves most incredible about this film, beyond its source material and star/director, is the fact that it’s one of the few in recent memory that offers someone of Eastwood’s age a truly original role flush with depth, substance and heart.
To be sure, in recent years Hollywood’s improved at making films focussed on the 60-plus crowd and their lives, struggles and various issues related to the challenges of aging. Unfortunately, however, many films based around senior stars still fall into one of two categories: either a goofy comedy about older people checking off their bucket list or a tear-jerking dementia drama. And while it can be entertaining to see octogenarians cut loose like they’re back in college, or Oscar-worthy to play a senior mourning a loved one slipping away into Alzheimer’s, there’s more to aging, and more that aging performers can offer, than that.
That’s the joy of The Mule. It’s a story about an 87-year-old man whose lifetime of selfish behaviour and unwillingness to keep up with technology has left him ostracized from his family and financially vulnerable. Earl spent decades showing more love for flowers than his family, which is why his ex-wife and daughter want nothing to do with him. Online floral companies erode his brick and mortar business model and his house falls into foreclosure. On top of that, among his peers he’s earned a reputation for being, in the words of a pal, “an a**hole.”
But when Earl unwittingly agrees to serve as a drug mule, he enters a world that affords him a sense of value. Though some characters in the film poke fun at Earl’s age, his age itself is not a joke. Earl holds his own with everyone from his angry family to cartel toughs, more a willing co-operator than helpless senior. He’s never depicted as weak or infirm and his dignity remains intact even as his conscience wavers. As his reputation grows the drug running becomes more about fulfilling a sense of duty to those who are counting on him after years of failing his family in the same way and, in doing so, he regains the confidence and self-worth that his regrets had chipped away over the decades.