Film: The Mule
Starring: Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Hugo Weaving
Directed by: Angus Sampson and Tony Mahony
First time Australian feature film directors Tony Mahony and Angus Sampson (who also is the lead star), produce a lean, dark, sporadically funny, weird, and based on true events take on adolescent qualities in grown-up people. Growing up is hard to do and we all know that but in this, Mahony, Sampson, and co-writers Jaime Browne and Leigh Whannell (who also plays a role) envision a story where smuggling drugs through a certain body cavity can make you step up to the plate and be a man. The Mule is a film that shows you exactly what its about in the first 30 minutes and honors the promise on exploring those ideas in an enticing way.
Ray Jenkins (Sampson) is a mopey but lovable mid-to-late 20-something who still lives with his parents and works a dead-end job at a TV repair store. After his drug dealer buddy, Gavin (Whannell), hatches a plan to smuggle heroin from Thailand for the local drug lord Pat Shepherd (Fringe’s John Noble), Ray is invited to get in on the score. Agreeing to the terms and smuggling the drugs, Ray is arrested by customs in his home country of Australia. Constables Gavin (Ewen Leslie) and Croft (The Lord of the Rings‘ Hugo Weaving) are assigned to make sure that Ray avails himself of whatever lies inside his bowels, at all costs.
The Mule starts with news footage of a sail vessel sailing the un-sailable. Of course, this throws the narrative into gear whilst giving the viewer thematic context to work from. This is a movie about a man holding in his fecal matter for more than was previously known as humanly possible. Ray is the local dope, he’s soft spoken, everybody likes him, and doesn’t have much of a drive in life. When he is given this opportunity, he’s anxious about it. After a couple of party montages with Gavin that help his self-esteem with women, Ray is totally sure that he’s the mule that they’re looking for. Like with any story about the main character dealing with the consequences of his newfound dignity, Ray gets so deep in a bad situation to the point where he can’t get out.
Ray isn’t the only one in this darkly twisted story though; The Mule offers a slew of supporting characters that all amplify the narrative’s resonating qualities. John Noble plays the evil drug dealer that is a pleasure to watch as he slinks around like an ethereal force, making others do his violent bidding. Hugo Weaving as Constable Croft is the most fun to watch. He’s the kind of cop that is okay with blurring the lines between what is and isn’t acceptable when you are holding someone in protective custody. To hear him sling out bleak jokes about feces was the exact comedic tone that The Mule needed so desperately. Otherwise, I would have been confused at the prospect that the whole film is described as part comedy. Sure, most of the things that happen are preposterous but are they naturally funny? Not really, unless you find pooping yourself with the risk of a heroin overdose comedic.
The Mule isn’t presented to be some kind of revolutionary indie from first-time feature directors and that’s part of its charm. Coupling some solid tunes from the early ’80s (the film takes place in 1983 Australia), Sampson and Mahony throw in some entertaining slow pan-in shots on every character as they are experiencing some type of pain whether emotional or physical. Luckily, the directing duo doesn’t skimp on the gross stuff that could come about because of being released from constipation. Every gag in the film only lends itself more to how ugly and disgusting everyone and everything is here.
In the end, The Mule reminds us that Ray’s story is a lot more steeped in reality then we are led on to imagine. Credit should be given where credit is due and Mahony/Sampson should get more than just a pat on the back for taking something like the coming-of-age trope and shaping it into such an unusual and dismal tale.
Review written by Sam Cohen