The year is 1 983. Ray Jenkins (Angus Sampson) is a sad-sack Aussie footballer. While on a trip to Thailand, his best friend/teammate Gavin (Leigh Wannell) tries to talk him into helping smuggle heroin back home. Gavin has long been working for a local nightclub owner and knows Ray could use the cash that such an endeavor would bring. Ray is initially resistant to the idea, saying he “wouldn’t be any good at it,” but eventually relents. He swallows twenty packets of the stuff, along with some pills to constipate him. Once landing back in Australia, his anxious demeanor draws the suspicion of customs officials. Following a strip search, he is detained by authorities. A no-nonsense detective named Croft (Hugo Weaving) gets permission to temporarily hold him at a local hotel, and thus the conflict begins. Croft waits for Ray to defecate so he can make a formal arrest. Ray, meanwhile, struggles to hold it all in as the pills wear off, the days stretch on, and nature’s call becomes harder and harder to ignore. Meanwhile, a public defender (Georgina Haig) works to get his detention shortened before he you-know-whats the bed.
The Mule is quite a bizarre cat-and-mouse game. Croft, eager to make an arrest, does everything he can think of to literally scare the crap out of his detainee. Ray, meanwhile, struggles mightily to hold his bowels in check, knowing that he’ll face a lengthy prison sentence if he poops. Angus Sampson gives an uncomfortably authentic performance as the man who desperately puts himself in agony to avoid ruining his life. He and co-director Tony Mahony add to the tension by filling the soundtrack with noises that indicate extreme intestinal distress. Stomach rumblings, flatulence, and bowel gurglings help convey the discomfort Ray feels as he struggles to keep his sphincter pinched shut. Other times, the camera briefly flashes inside Ray’s digestive system, showing the heroin packets trying to push their way through. To The Mule‘s credit, it actually works. The extreme nature of the plot — combined with a sly sense of humor and a willingness to exploit that gotta-go feeling we’ve all experienced at some point — makes this an undeniably intense watch.
When The Mule gets away from the main thrust, things go a bit downhill. A couple of side elements, including a plot strand involving Gavin and a cop, are introduced a bit too spontaneously and therefore lack a full punch. Some of the supporting characters, such as the public defender, would have benefitted from additional development, as well. Even if you don’t mind those not insubstantial flaws, there’s still the issue of The Mule being fundamentally about feces. It doesn’t shy away from the subject. One scene, in which Ray takes a particularly desperate measure, is so appallingly gross that it may well send some audience members fleeing the theater in disgust.
Do you want to see a movie that deals so heavily with scatological subject matter? Well, if you can stomach the topic (pun intended), you’ll find several things. One is a fascinating account of the perils of this sort of drug smuggling. Another is an engaging tale of an essentially good-natured man who gets in over his head and then struggles to achieve self-preservation. Last, but not least, you’ll see a film that has impressively all-in performances from Sampson and Weaving. The Mule is not perfect, and it sure isn’t pretty, but it has a wildly original premise for a thriller, and that’s enough to make it kind of a gas.