Bourke’s horror/thriller is so-so for the most part, a weird fusion of cabin-in-the-woods style schlock (murderous axe-wielding inn keepers, topless victims, that sort of thing) with a great Aussie outdoors aesthetic. But the final half hour is gobsmacking. Giallo-esque images fume like a burning acid blot, and are combined with the elegant pacing of a more classically staged sequence like the footsteps under the door showdown in the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men.
A man investigating a spate of disappearances checks into an inn where he rightfully suspects the nutty hillbilly owners of foul play. They wait for him to go to sleep so they can kill him; he is determined to stay awake so they can’t. This prolonged and beautifully executed stand-off extracts great mileage from a simple situation.
The Mule, from debut co-directors Tony Mahony and Angus Sampson, extends that same essential premise – a character chooses not to commit an ordinary action in fear of suffering an extraordinary consequence – and dowses it with body fluids.
Footballer Ray (Sampson) cannot defecate for seven days or he will meet a horrible fate. Slow-witted but stubborn as a, well, mule, Ray has smuggled 20 condoms of heroin back from Thailand after being suckered in by a scheming teammate (Leigh Whannell, who, with Sampson, co-wrote the screenplay). Led by Detective Croft (Hugo Weaving), the police know there are drugs in his stomach but need to wait for them to come out. Taking advantage of a legal loophole, Ray has refused an x-ray and claims he can’t go to the toilet because he’s constipated and, erm, allergic to laxities.
The fuzz don’t believe him and hole him up in a hotel room where they have a one week legal window to extract the gear. This leads to an epic battle of the wills: the police grow increasingly tired, frustrated and are riven with internal conflicts while Ray disintegrates into a sweaty, slobbering, pallid-faced wreck, literally dribbling all over the place.
After a slowish start, The Mule kicks into gear. It’s a fiendishly smart and entertaining comedy entirely predicated on the idea of somebody not wanting to go to the loo. This outrageous clenched-cheeked premise is executed with poker-face seriousness and acute attention to how basic situations can be changed, tweaked and prologued. Small developments cause big repercussions – watch what happens when mum (Noni Hazlehurst) brings a meal for her son – and duelling character motivations create all manner of friction.
Regardless of how The Mule performs in terms of viewers and numbers, it won’t be written up as another 2014 Australian feature film that bombed in cinemas. In fact, cinemas aren’t really part of the deal. A small number of event screenings and Q&As are the entrée to a main meal of digital distribution. The film will bypass the traditional theatrical window and launch on iTunes and other online platforms 21 November simultaneously in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US.
Hugo Weaving lifts its price as a pedigree international sale. He spends most of the running time leering on the side, gruffly intoning bitter little lines such as “don’t let the bed drugs bite”. Clearly this is minor Weaving – Macbeth it ain’t – but he seems to be having fun. Weaving’s impersonation of a bad cop is pitched along the lines of somebody who brushes his teeth with lemons, snarls at babies and goes home to eat kittens for dinner.
Sampson, meanwhile, is the real attraction. The actor made recognisable by appearances as a hee-yuck giggling couch potato in Maggi Snack commercials has refined a ruffled deadpan, the look of someone always slightly perplexed or perturbed. The Mule’s screenplay plays up to that, delivering him a flow of situations to feel unsettled about. It’s not just a film about a self-inflicted constipated man who refuses to go to the toilet. It is also about a pressed upon person, regularly underestimated and taken for granted, attempting to prove his mettle in a seemingly impossible to win situation.
The shit-eating snarl Sampson showed off in gnarly 2012 genre pic 100 Bloody Acres, praised internationally by critics but greeted with a tepid response at home, felt like a turning point. He has such an animated face; when he stands still it seems like he’s moving, such is the fleshy character on his bones. Sampson’s evolution as an actor has gone hand-in-hand with his ability to fine tune the impact of small flexes of facial muscles.
The flexing of muscles in less appealing places may or may not be a part of The Mule. Like the cops, you’ll have to wait and see what comes out.
• The Mule is available for download on 21 November