Writhing, sure that you can smell (and nearly taste) faecal matter and counting down the seconds until you’re going to projectile vomit; no you haven’t got a gastro bug – you’ve just watched The Mule – Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell’s 80s set crime tale of the halcyon days of international drug smuggling.
When Gavin (Whannell) needs a mule for his latest Thailand smuggling assignment for the local crime personality Pat (John Noble) he enlists long time football mate and gullible dullard Ray (Sampson). When Ray buckles under the pressure of his incoming customs journey he’s swarmed by a police team, led by Croft (Hugo Weaving) and Paris (Ewan Leslie), to wait out the release of his ‘cargo.’
The Mule really works exclusively in the period setting. It’s an earlier and less sophisticated time in Australia. In 2014, Ray (Sampson) would be diagnosed with a learning disability or on the autism spectrum and the crooks are exploiting someone with a deficiency. Directors Tony Mahony and Sampson don’t dare confront those minefields and instead create an almost nostalgic, or perhaps more aptly, blissfully ignorant snapshot of 80s suburban Melbourne. In 1982 Australia our Prime Minister won beer sculling competitions – it was a drastically less politically correct time and they characterise Ray as just a little slow. Mahoney and Sampson use the legacy coverage of the America’s Cup racing footage to skilfully denote how much time is passing through Ray’s struggle to keep from slipping out his hidden bounty and draw parallels to interplay the underdog story of the Australia (number) 2 winning the America’s cup (yes holding in a toxic turd is as big a feat as winning a sailing race as far as I’m concerned).
You can most certainly see Leigh Whannell’s particular narrative structural stamp on the script. As the writer and co-creator of the Saw series, it’s easy to draw parallels to his breakout horror film. The majority of The Mule takes place in a hotel while the police are attempting to wait out their suspects’ eventual passing of a mother load of drugs. The focal point of the film is essentially a torture chamber and the interested parties of crooked cops, drugs dealers, criminals and henchman are igniting chaos around that epicentre. Instead of the attempts to incite terror, it toes the line between being extremely dark and gross and ‘laugh out loud’ funny. Sampson’s contribution, one assumes, fleshes out this complex underachiever Ray. An idiot savant, ‘mummy’s boy’ who is the butt of every joke and yet despite the repulsive things that he must endure, he’s morally pure.
The support cast are eclectic and eccentric bunch of different archetypes that are swirling around Ray. Leigh Whannell is the sleazy henchman getting too big for his boots in John Noble’s little operation. Noble has a fun time as the local business man that everyone knows is significantly shonky. Hugo Weaving is loud bad cop and Ewan Leslie is sleazy bad cop. And Geoff Morrell is the pathetic handbag second husband to Noni Hazlehurst’s domineering mother. They aren’t so much creating characters as they are slotting into well-worn models.
Sampson steps out from behind the lens to deliver a tremendously nuanced and committed performance. The hulking Sampson isn’t playing a larger than life character; he’s a dim and sheltered and therefore gullible enough to trust the convincing words of long-time ‘mates.’ Ray realises the consequences of his stupid decision and the potential of going to prison, and would rather die trying hold onto the much sought after prize, segmented into condoms floating around his insides, than to be seen betraying his aforementioned ‘mates’ or the realising this manifest destiny of the drug mule. It’s during this mental and physical ordeal that you begin to see his character’s awakening. As a director, Sampson could only have tasked himself with going through some of the heinous (literal and figurative) shit that Ray must go through; he’s outstanding.
Sampson’s Ray is the point of difference in The Mule; the against all odds underdog that you happily go through hell with to see if he gets to the other side. This isn’t an opus; it’s a Polaroid of quaint, bogan crime and bodily waste.
[rating=3] and a half
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Tony Mahony & Angus Sampson
Written by: Jaime Browne (Story), Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell (Screenplay)
Starring: Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Hugo Weaving, Ewan Leslie, Geoff Morrell, Noni Hazlehurst, John Noble, Nick Farnell, Chris Pang, Lasarus Ratuere, Marsha Vassilevshaia