November 24, 2014
Thankfully co-writer/director/star/whatever Angus Sampson has produced a film that smears the screen with gastric gross-out humour, yes, but also delivers unexpected social commentary on life in early 80s Melbourne.
Mr Garth Jones has pointed out that the character of Pat ‘The Rat’, with his cloying Aussie blokishness masking an insatiable lust for power fit as a neat caricature of the populist Bob Hawke. John Noble even wears a similar hairstyle for the part. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Sampson stars as the hapless Ray Jenkins, a young man dismissed by his fellow soccer club members as a mama’s boy. He wins the club’s man of the year prize by dint of turning up for the most games, accepts abuse from his employer at his electronics job without complaint and generally seems to be stuck in a rut with his life going nowhere.
Shots of empty pitches, run-down business shopfronts and derelict factories suggest that 1983 Melbourne, prior to Jeff Kennett’s ostentatious largesse in public spending, is also stuck.
When Ray discovers his dad (Geoff Morrell) owes money – a revelation delivered courtesy of a large Eastern European man who turns up on his doorstep threatening to kill his mum, played by Noni Hazlehurst – he agrees to a shifty get-rich scheme. Only problem is it involves smuggling a kilo of heroin through customs in his stomach.
Needless to say it goes very wrong very quickly.
Ray finds himself cornered by two federal police officers, Croft (Hugo Weaving) and Paris (Ewan Leslie). Terrified at the prospect of jail, but refusing to grass on his best friend Gavin (Leigh Whannell) who got him into the mess in the first place, Ray refuses an X-Ray (ho ho ho). Unable to compel him to agree, Croft drags the naive mule to a nearby airport hotel to wait out the call of nature.
It all goes to shit at this point.
Sampson is impressive in the role of Ray, a man unable to speak up for himself – ever – and who trusts in his ability to keep silent to win his freedom. His absolute faith in childhood friend Gavin is heart-breaking – the two actors do great work in their scenes together. Leslie, in the part of good cop, Paris, steps into shot looking just like Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet (again, it was the 80s) and has a nice character arc over the course of the film.
Morrell’s drunken failure of a father is excellent, willing to turn a blind eye to the danger of associating with Pat in order to satisfy his addictions. Hazlehurst in turn nails the divide between suburban normality on the surface and seething resentmet. Noble’s basilisk-stare is perfect for the role of a small-time gangster playing at being a local businessman benefactor, while Weaving is once again reliably louche and seedy as bent copper Croft (and viewers with long memories will recall that he is on the opposite side of the law from his appearance in Bangkok Hilton with Nicole Kidman).
The film’s ensemble prevents the claustrophobia of Ray’s detention in the room – left writhing in pain on a sweat-drenched bed as the condoms filled with heroin work through his system – from overwhelming proceedings. Tonal shifts between toilet humour and sudden violence also keep the attention from wandering.
Overall though, this is Sampson’s film, with his sympathetic performance often wince-inducing. Late events in the story risk belying his efforts, Ray at times felt like too much of a simpleton to enter into a battle of wits with his captors, but it is a generous and committed piece of acting.
Yes *that scene* is likely to turn stomachs, but this reviewer learned an important lesson: laughing along with an audience is a sure way to defeat the gag reflex! How that’ll help viewers at home watching the digital stream of The Mule, or its upcoming DVD release, well I just don’t know. You’re on your own in every sense there.
The clever use of the 1983 America’s Cup footage as a counterpoint to the events of the film suggests this is a movie about how Australians see themselves as underdogs. Like Ray they feel disenfranchised by forces outside their control they can barely understand. In that regard this is a movie about escaping the drudgery of a life half-lived.
A solidly entertaining film for those with strong constitutions.