D: Tony Mahony, Angus Sampson / 103m
Cast: Hugo Weaving, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Ewen Leslie, Geoff Morrell, Georgina Haig, Noni Hazlehurst, John Noble
Melbourne, 1983. Ray Jenkins (Sampson) is voted player of the year at his local football club, and is included in the team’s trip to Thailand as part of its end of season celebrations. With the trip funded largely by local businessman Pat Shepherd (Noble), the team’s vice captain, Gavin Ellis (Whannell) makes Ray an offer: while they’re in Bangkok they can pick up a kilo of heroin, and smuggle it back by putting it in condoms and then swallowing them. Ray reluctantly agrees, but when the time comes only he swallows any condoms.
Back in Australia, Ray behaves suspiciously at the airport and is detained by customs officials. They suspect him of carrying drugs but he refuses to be x-rayed or be given any laxatives (Ray has to give his consent for either to happen). Ray is handed over to the Australian Federal Police, led by Detectives Croft (Weaving) and Paris (Leslie). They take him to a nearby motel where they keep him under surveillance for seven days, and where they wait for one of two outcomes: either Ray confesses to being a drug mule, or he defecates twice. Ray makes the decision to keep quiet and resist going to the toilet for as long as he can.
Meanwhile, Gavin is avoiding Pat, for whom he was smuggling the heroin in the first place. However, Gavin was planning to double cross Pat and sell the heroin himself, but Ray’s detention has ruined things. With Pat after him, Gavin finds out where Ray is being held and books into a room in the same motel. On Ray’s second day he’s appointed a lawyer, Jasmine Griffiths (Haig). She advises him not to cooperate with the police and to hold on for as long as he can. As the week goes on, Ray finds himself being bullied by Croft and some of the other officers, while Pat learns of Ray’s involvement (Gavin was meant to be working alone). When Pat finally catches up with Gavin he gives him no alternative but to find a way into Ray’s motel room and silence him before he can tell the police anything. But when he does, what happens afterwards makes matters far more complicated than even he could have predicted.
Based on a true story, and set against the backdrop of the 1983 America’s Cup competition, The Mule is the kind of slightly warped, slightly off-kilter drama that Australian cinema does so well. Taking the bare bones of an arrest in the early Eighties, co-writers Sampson and Whannell, along with Jaime Browne, have fashioned a tale of personal endurance and criminal conspiracy that is by turns tense and dramatic, while also maintaining a fair degree of black comedy in its approach (see the above still). It sets things up with an economy and confidence that makes Ray’s dilemma all the more agonising, as he seeks to make it through his detention at the motel without giving anything away – literally.
Ray is initially presented as a bit of a quiet, unassuming, and gullible character, but there is an intelligence working beneath the furrowed brow that proves more than a match for the likes of Croft and his bully-boy tactics, and there’s a degree of fun to be had in seeing him turn the tables on the police, especially later on in the movie when he discovers a way out of his predicament. Along the way though, Ray has to make some hard choices in between the stomach cramps and protracted bowel spasms, and thanks to Sampson’s natural, perceptive performance, the viewer is sympathetic to Ray’s predicament throughout; he’s an easy character to like, and to root for. (Though one scene may well have audiences reaching for their sick bags, as Ray finds a temporary solution to his problems.)
With Ray’s predicament taking centre stage, the supporting storylines prove less original, though they do bolster the basic man-in-a-room-for-a-week scenario, and give the audience a break from Ray’s protracted agony. There is a twist that arrives partway through, but anyone who’s seen even a handful of crime dramas will see what’s coming based purely on its location, and it seems geared to provide a more “thrilling” ending to the movie than is actually necessary. As well as the criminal plotting going on, there’s some domestic drama ladled into the mix as well, and some crude sexism on Croft’s part that seems reflective of the period rather than an unnecessary character trait.
The cast all have enough to get their teeth into, with Weaving clearly relishing his role at the atavistic Croft, all macho posturing and sneering disdain. As his partner (and in a sense the straight man in their relationship), Leslie has the unshowy role that contrasts with Croft’s boorishness. Both actors put in good performances, and are matched by Haig’s idealistic public defender, Morrell’s shady stepfather, and Hazlehurst’s strong-willed mother. Noble exudes a cruel menace as the crooked businessman with a grim way of chastising his employees, while Whannell does sweaty paranoia with aplomb as the in-over-his-head Gavin. But it’s Sampson’s movie, his portrayal of Ray entirely convincing even when the script requires him to up the IQ points in his efforts to outsmart the police. It’s an often gruelling performance to watch, but as realistic in all likelihood as you’d expect.
Along with Mahony, Sampson also proves adept behind the camera, directing matters with an assurance and boldness that pays off handsomely. He even makes the many scenes where Ray is writhing around in pain as agonising for the audience as it is for the character, and ensures that the humour, when it’s included, isn’t there just for the sake of it. Two moments stand out: the two customs agents deciding who’s going to do Ray’s cavity search, and the police officer returning to Ray’s room and spraying some air freshener – small moments of hilarity that are also timed to perfection. There are also some inventive camera shots to keep things interesting from a visual perspective, and the editing by Andy Canny ensures the pace is kept tight and that scenes don’t outstay their welcome. On the downside, having the main character kept in the same location for so long does restrict the narrative, and while outside events prove engaging overall, without them the movie would have struggled to maintain the audience’s interest. There’s also the small issue of the police always falling asleep at night when they’re supposed to be watching Ray for signs of any “movement”. It’s a clumsy plot device, and is the one really false note in the whole movie.
Rating: 8/10 – thanks to the efforts of Sampson and Whannell – if they look familiar it’s because they play Tucker and Specs in the Insidious movies – The Mule is a little gem of a movie that deserves as big an audience as it can achieve; uncompromising in places, wickedly funny in others, this is an unusual tale that walks a fine line between implausibility and credibility, and succeeds in walking that line admirably.