November 21, 2014
Despite the title, this is not an animal picture, although there were times it reminded me of another Australian crime film, the terrific Animal Kingdom. Like that film, The Mule focuses on a group of low-level criminals. Here they are smuggling a kilo of heroin from Thailand into their hometown of Melbourne. The process involves filling 20 condoms with the drug, swallowing them and carrying the junk across the border inside the “mule’s” large intestine until it can be expelled, cleaned off and sold. If this all sounds too gross for you, it would be wise to give this movie a wide berth, as the process of ingesting drugs (and recovering feces-encrusted drugs later) is explored in graphic detail. But I should also let you know that by skipping The Mule you would be robbing yourself of experiencing one of the year’s most suspenseful, grueling and hilarious motion pictures.
The film, supposedly based on a true story, is set in 1983, and focuses on Ray Jenkins, played by Angus Sampson in a wonderfully understated performance. I should point out that Sampson also co-directed with Tony Mahony and co-wrote the screenplay.
A seemingly not-too-bright young man, Ray repairs TV sets for a stingy boss who could be called Scrooge-like if the filmmakers hadn’t gone to so much trouble to let us know he’s Jewish. Ray’s pal Gavin, played by Leigh Whannell (the screenplay’s other co-writer), enlists his friend to be a mule, traveling to Thailand for a vacation with their soccer club, all paid for by Pat Shepherd (John Noble), the smarmy team owner and crime boss.
In a scene packed with tension, Ray (packed as well) panics at the sight of drug-sniffing dogs when he re-enters Australia. He abandons his luggage and tries to flee, causing himself to be detained and examined by the authorities. When he refuses to consent to a CAT scan, he is forced to spend seven days as a prisoner in a cheap hotel under the watchful eyes of federal agents who are waiting for him to shit out the drugs they are sure he is carrying.
The two detectives guarding him could have ended up as a typical good cop/bad cop duo. What sets them apart is the fact that we have the great Hugo Weaving (of The Matrix and V for Vendetta) as the baddest of bad cops — ready, willing and able simply to beat the shit (and the drugs) out of poor Ray. Weaving is a wonder in this movie and my only complaint involves a scene in which he tangles with the team owner’s Eastern-European thug: King Kong versus Godzilla. I really wanted to see Weaving tear this guy apart.
Ray’s public defender, well played by the lovely Georgina Haig, becomes an object of lust for both Ray and the cops, and even for the sadistic Euro-trash henchman. But since no one is quite what they seem in this tale, it turns out that her very proper exterior hides an equally driven young woman, willing to bend the rules and break the law if it will help her case.
The scenario may seem familiar, as the story is similar to Joshua Marston’s brilliant 2004 film Maria Full of Grace, in which a pregnant Colombian woman also becomes a drug mule. But as the title implies, Maria becomes martyr-like in her suffering while Ray ends up fighting a battle against time and the call of nature. So the tone of the two movies couldn’t be more different. We’re left with a perfect example of how the same story can seem fresh and new in the hands of excellent directors and clever writers.
It should also be noted that The Mule marks a homecoming for actor-writer Leigh Whannell. He and director James Wan together created the Saw franchise and later made Insidious and The Conjuring. With these huge successes, both Australians have become members of the Splat Pack, a group of young horror filmmakers that includes Frenchman Alexandre Aja, Englishman Neil Marshall, and America’s Darren Lynn Bousman, Eli Roth and Rob Zombie. Now Whannell has come back to his native Melbourne and, with the currency of a local boy making good, has gathered together his old mates to get The Mule on its feet.
Welcome home, Leigh.