October 14, 2014
The Mule was reviewed at the London Film Festival. As of November 21st, it’s now availably digitally — including on iTunes — and in select theaters in the US.
There’s “black comedy” – a sense of humour shot through with the darkness some folk simply can’t laugh at. And then there’s The Mule, a crackerjack new Australian crime thriller, which might also be referred to as a “brown comedy”; it’s dark, alright, but its particular shade is more associated with toilet humour – or, at least, the stuff that goes in the toilet. Wait, come back…
“Sh*t happens?” is truly a, er, logline that sounds like a gimmick. But fundamentally, that’s what this film is about – whether a naïve stooge who’s ingested twenty condoms full of heroin can outlast the police who are holding him for seven days on suspicion of drug smuggling by not, shall we say, producing the evidence.
It’s a bold gambit by the filmmakers, because such a synopsis is immediately battling an audience’s gag reflex. They’re not hiding the subject matter – the movie poster spells out the title in glistening, twisting intestines – but no image can adequately prepare you for one of the hardest-to-stomach scenes this reviewer has ever witnessed onscreen. No spoilers here, though – except the guarantee that your appetite will be ruined big time.
But here’s the thing; while The Mule serves up some pretty extreme situations – and they’re undoubtedly some of its selling points – it genuinely doesn’t wallow in them. There’s a sensitivity and subtlety here, in and out of the lavatory, that mark it out as way smarter and more sophisticated than most.
It’s Melbourne, 1983, and we meet hapless Ray Jenkins (Angus Sampson) at his local Aussie football team’s get-together. A lumbering outsider who lives with his devoted mother and his scrounging stepfather, Ray’s sole talent appears to be his ability to fix electrical appliances at the local repair shop. It’s certainly not his footie skills, where he wins Clubman of the Year for his “loyalty, endurance, resilience” rather than any sporting prowess.
Ray’s flash teammate Gavin (Leigh Whannell) has a sideline delivering Thai drugs for ruthless local dealer Pat (John Noble) and manages to persuade Ray to join in (helped by the threat of retribution on Ray’s mum, whose husband owes Pat significant debts). But once back on home soil, Ray panics at the airport, leading to his incarceration in a nearby hotel – he refuses an X-ray and claims he’s allergic to laxatives – while local police, the slick Paris (Ewan Leslie) and thuggish Croft (Hugo Weaving) try to encourage either a confession or nature to take its course. Hopefully both.
These aren’t Ray’s only problems. As he struggles not to deliver the goods, Pat learns that Gavin has double-crossed him and that Ray is a loose end he can’t afford. And so the mob close in too, happy to give new meaning to the idea of Ray spilling his guts. Factor in a corrupt cop who also wants his share and you’ve got possibly the worst-case of irritable bowel syndrome on record.
You’ve also got one hell of a tense ride. Sampson and Whannell – the quirky paranormal investigators from the Insidious series – plus their co-writer Jaime Browne and Sampson’s co-director Tony Mahony ring an escalating series of wicked plot twists from the material, keeping the style low-key (some hallucinating scenes aside) but highly effective. Often brutally funny, sometimes just outright brutal, they deliver the Hitchcockian deal of putting an ordinary guy in way over his head and inexorably turning the screw. But whereas Hitch shocked viewers by heading into the shower in Psycho, Sampson and co delve into even murkier bathroom activities. And don’t even flush.
So much hinges on Sampson’s portrayal of Ray and he does wonders, especially physically, with a difficult, largely reactive role – taciturn, squirming and humiliated, but still having to suggest a dull canniness that every other character underestimates. Whannell, too, gives probably his best on-screen performance as the luckless Gavin. And veterans Noble and Weaving are clearly enjoying themselves, Weaving in particular looks like he’s relishing his sneering, Neanderthal-like bent copper, pocketing all the best lines.
It’s the little touches that give The Mule its extra kick. Ray’s traits and skills, used to passive-aggressively belittle him early on, come in pretty handy by the end. There’s some bitter class warfare commentary going on too, his family of ‘Westies’ (Melbourne’s traditional poorer relations) considered expendable; and a neat parallel with the ongoing TV commentary of the historic America’s Cup, where the Aussie underdogs unexpectedly turned the tables on their smugly dominant US rivals. Such touches are all mostly blended into the scenery – though let’s face it, when your main canvas is painted in such vivid shades of jet-brown, most people’s attention is focused elsewhere.
A violently funny comedy and shockingly effective – and at times, gleefully nauseating – thriller. If you can stomach some of the more outrageous humour from Down Under, The Mule is an unexpected treat.