Set in 1983 and inspired by a true story, a naive man (Angus Sampson) carries lethal drugs hidden in his stomach and is arrested by the Australian Federal Police on his way back from Thailand. Out of desperation, ‘the Mule’ decides to defy his bodily functions and withhold the evidence... literally. By doing so, he becomes a 'human time-bomb', dragging cops, criminals and concerned family into his impossible escapade.
The premise is intriguingly disgusting: how long can a man hold on before he has to poo? The next question is: Are you the kind of viewer who cares to watch for 103 minutes as Angus Sampson sweats and clenches and groans, trying to conceal for 7 days the 20 condoms full of heroin he’s carrying in his bowels? Whether you’ll appreciate The Mule, a small Australian crime thriller with an underdog hero and some surprising twists and turns, depends entirely on whether you can stomach its dark toilet humour—which is, forgive me, brown rather than black.
Sampson plays Ray Jenkins, a pitiful and somewhat infuriatingly passive character—he brings new meaning to the word anal retentive. In the Melbourne’s bleak Sunshine West, Ray works as a downtrodden TV repairman. He lives at home with his battler mum (Noni Hazlehurst) and debt-riddled stepfather (Geoff Morrell). Ray’s childhood mate, now turned wiry petty crim (Leigh Whannell) ropes him in to a footy club trip to Thailand that’s just a ruse for bringing back heroin. It’s all masterminded by a ruthless, sleazy nightclub owner, Pat Shepherd (John Noble).
When Ray fumbles at airport security in Melbourne (the guards play ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ to determine who’ll shine the torch up his bum-crack), he refuses to undergo a voluntary x-ray. As per the law, he’s held under suspicion without charge for seven days in a Skyways motel, while two cops (Hugo Weaving and Ewen Leslie, both excellent and relishing their roles as bad cop and good cop, respectively) wait for him to pass the evidence.
It’s hard to feel very much for Ray in the first half of the film, which drags a little. He’s simply a dumb patsy with a face like a mournful... yes, mule. But as the cops and local crims exert increasing pressure on him to spill or save the contents of guts, threatening those who he loves, Ray’s stoic grimness and essential good-heartedness start to matter.
The Mule, supposedly based on fact, is set in 1983 so the décor is poo-brown and mustard, complete with textured wallpaper, arched doorways, and some suitably hideous clothes by prolific Australian costume designer Cappi Ireland. The America’s Cup race is playing non-stop on the television in the background and the recurrent references to this particular moment in Australia’s history (and the accompanying jokes about the underdog sport of yacht racing) are a nice touch, though perhaps they’re forced to work a little too hard. We even get Bob Hawke’s famous line, “Any boss who sacks a worker for not turning up today is a bum!” There are potentially all kinds of mixed messages about class in Australia here, but the film is simply on the side of the working class hero, who really comes into his own after he’s bashed by a middle-class cop and verbally abused as “suburban scum, just like your dopey mother”.
Written by Leigh Whannell (Saw), Angus Sampson and Jaime Browne and co-directed by Sampson and music video veteran Tony Mahony, The Mule gathers pace as it goes along and finishes sweetly. But the film’s first half is a dirty chore, especially if you feel you’ve previously spent far too much time watching Australia’s gritty period-designed underbelly. Still, it’s been well-received at its overseas outings (including at SXSW, where it premiered early this year, and at the London Film Festival) and is being released straight to VOD with a canny social media strategy. Well-made (apart from some inadvertently confusing transitions) and smarter than it first seems, The Mule deserves to find its audience at the home box office. But they won’t want dinner afterwards.