November 20, 2014
PLOT: A none-too-bright television repairman gets caught up in a scheme to smuggle drugs into Australia from Thailand – the old “drug mule” way. When he’s caught by authorities who want what’s inside of him to come out, he has to contain himself for as long as humanely possible.
REVIEW: I’ll try to avoid as many barbaric puns as possible, but it must be said that THE MULE is a shit-ton of fun, a cheeky dark comedy with chunks of brutal violence and a palpable suspense that simply wafts over you as it goes along. Okay, I’m done. The truth is, this Aussie export is smart and well-constructed; a surprisingly effective thriller considering its central plot hinges on a man’s determination to hold his bowels.
The pitiful protagonist in question is Ray (Angus Sampson, who also co-directed with Tony Mahoney and co-wrote with Leigh Whannell, his INSIDIOUS co-star); a big bear of a man with droopy eyes and a doltish demeanor, Ray is a sad sack in control of nary a thing in his life. He’s dominated by a doting mother, pushed around by his football mates and treated unfairly by his boss at the TV repair shop. Ray seems for all the world like he’ll be a permanent bachelor, looking after his mum and alcoholic, broke step-dad forever; that is, until an opportunity comes his way to make some cash. But guys like Ray don’t get “good” opportunities, and as this one comes from his shady childhood friend Gavin (Whannell), it’s bound to be especially ill-advised.
Gavin’s appeal to Ray: help him smuggle a batch of heroin back from Thailand, where their football team is going to celebrate the conclusion of the season. The job is being pulled for the team’s sponsor Pat (the always-great John Noble), an outwardly jovial guy who happens to be the local crime boss. Ray knows this is a terrible idea, doomed to fail, but with Gavin’s incessant cajoling eventually persuades him; next thing you know he’s swallowing 20 condoms right before his flight. Not Ray’s finest moment, and this guy has not had many fine moments.
Of course, Ray is apprehended (we learn this in the very first scene) and is soon quarantined in a hotel room under the supervision of two determined cops, the determined Paris (Ewen Leslie) and the vicious, hot-tempered Croft (Hugo Weaving), who is willing to get Ray to expel the contents of his stomach by any means necessary. The cops have almost two weeks to wait out Ray, but the latter might prove to be more patient – albeit, agonizingly so – than they could have imagined. Fearing that Pat will have him and his family done for if he lets loose his package, Ray must hold it in for days. And days. And days…
THE MULE takes what could be a rather silly premise and wrings considerable tension out of it, primarily because we just feel so bad for Ray. Not really a bad guy, Ray’s predicament puts him in a grueling amount of pain (the sound department does their part, filling in ample stomach rumblings and flatulence), which is exacerbated by Croft’s pitiless, physical harassment. Meanwhile, excitement builds outside the hotel room walls as Gavin, himself in a pickle, must figure out how to either help or hurt his friend. Gavin is a character we’re not sure we should align ourselves with, his small amount of decency clouded by greed and stupidity, and Sampson and Whannell’s script smartly keeps us guessing as to where his allegiance will finally land.
The duo’s script is taught and filled with bleak humor; impressively, they mostly avoid scatological material, except for one horrific sequence that I won’t even begin to describe. (Just know THE MULE contains the grossest scene of any film this year, hands down.) The film gets a tad bogged down in some standard crime drama stuff when dealing with small town gangster Pat and his goons, but even these sections have a groovy, grim vibe that give them an edge over your run-of-the-mill entries into the genre. When we’re in that hotel room there’s the creeping dread that anything can happen – well, one specific thing – and we edge closer to the screen as the film goes on even though we’re quite uncomfortable at the thought of being too close.
Sampson and Whannell are good in their respective roles, but it’s the supporting cast that really crackles. Weaving is better than ever, playing a sinister bastard who isn’t without a sense of humor (or moral high ground). Georgina Haig (ABC’s “Once Upon a Time”) brings some much-needed feminine vigor to the proceedings as a public defender who’s basically the only person in Ray’s corner. John Noble (“Fringe”) is quietly evil as the crime boss, who doesn’t need to raise his voice to make you piss your pants, and veteran Australian thespians Noni Hazlehurst and Geoff Morrell are terrific and sympathetic as Ray’s beleaguered folks. That such a solid group of actors would come together for this movie, with its gross-out plot, is testament to the power of good writing. Any idea can be made accessible if its executed well enough.