Keeping to himself and never straying far from his protective mother’s (Noni Hazlehurst, TV’s A Place to Call Home) side, Ray Jenkins (Angus Sampson,Insidious: Chapter 2) doesn’t stand out in his close-knit community in Melbourne’s suburbs. He repairs television sets by day, occasionally pals around with his childhood best mate turned petty criminal Gavin (Leigh Whannell, Cooties), and passively ignores the repercussions of his stepfather’s (Geoff Morrell,Cloudstreet) gambling debts. His unremarkable manner endears him to local nightclub owner Pat Shepherd (John Noble, Devil’s Playground), scheming a plan to smuggle heroin back from Thailand. At Gavin’s behest, Ray reluctantly agrees to attend the end-of-year footy trip and return with condoms filled with contraband in his stomach – if he can get them past customs, that is.
Always the upstanding citizen, never the law-breaker, Ray gets nervous when re-entering the country. Cue the suspicions of cops Paris (Ewen Leslie, The Railway Man) and Croft (Hugo Weaving, Healing), detaining him in a hotel room until nature takes its course or seven days passes, whichever comes first. From first-time director Tony Mahony, co-helmer, writer and star Sampson, and co-scribe and supporting player Whannell, as based upon a story by Jaime Browne (Laid), that’s where the film places the bulk of its focus. The days and nights are long, the abdominal pain is intense, and the pressure placed upon him by the police to name names is considerable, but as his lawyer (Georgina Haig, Once Upon a Time) fights for his rights, Ray refuses to use the toilet.
Set in 1983 with the interior design and period-appropriate America’s Cup obsession to match, The Mule may get down and dirty with the drug trade and the inner workings of the gastrointestinal system; however the film presents an underdog tale, plain and simple. After taking its time to establish Ray as unassuming and under-sung, the feature takes his side from the moment Gavin uses his influence to coerce him into complying, and more so when everyone – his so-called friend, the authorities, and his own insides – turn against him. He’s the quintessential Aussie battler, just wanting a fair go. They’re the forces pulling him down, tearing him apart, and trying to get him to sell out the national religion of mateship.
Saddled with the awkward comedy of discomfort and tasked with saying little by the script, Sampson puts in his best performance yet – and not just when physically suffering as a mess of sweat, saliva and visible agony. His deadpan stare may be unfamiliar to most given his tendency to play the comic sidekick, but restraint is a mode that suits him; his character may be feigning constipation, but his portrayal certainly isn’t. As a good-cop-bad-cop pair, Weaving and Leslie offer fine foils, afforded a wider range of reactions and interactions than their roles might intimate. Whannell and Noble also bring the sleaze with aplomb, impressing in an ensemble cast that communally surfs the material’s many tonal shifts yet nary sets a foot wrong.
Within a volatile climate for Australian films that has seen many a home-grown effort struggle to attract an audience in 2014, The Mule largely bypasses the big screen. As current debate spirals once more around the types of content that connects with local viewers and their motivation for staying away from cinemas, the feature releases via digital means in the first instance, not just here but in New Zealand, Canada and the US. It is a curious move, for many reasons: for the industry, it represents an interesting attempt to engage outside of customary channels; for the filmmakers, it enacts an earnest effort to explore ways to gain broader attention; for the film, it opens up access but keeps an entertaining example of our national output out of theatres. Indeed, given its recognisable faces, everyman protagonist and sheer force of novelty, not to mention its clever writing and solid direction, this might have been the feature to disprove the trend. Regardless of its distribution mechanism, it remains a film audiences needn’t strain to enjoy.
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
Directors: Tony Mahony and Angus Sampson
Australia, 2014, 103 minsRelease date: November 21
Available: via digital HD at http://212ignite.com.au/themule/