Australia cinema is a little bit obsessed with true crime films. In the past decade crime films like Chopper (2010), Snowtown (2011) and Animal Kingdom (2010) have had critical acclaim even if the returns at the box office haven’t been quite as stellar. Australia filmmakers seem to find it easy to create a humorous portrayal of real life crime doused in Australian-isms. TheMule is but another true crime film and as you can imagine I am a bit fatigued with the same genre being retreaded once again here in Australia. Yet there is a lot to love about The Mule.
Set in Melbourne in 1983 we are told that what we are about to see is inspired by true events. The word inspired being key here. Ray Jenkins (Angus Sampson) is a thirty-something ‘loser’ living with his mum (Noni Hazelhurst) and working a dead end job. Due to pressures from his Australian footy team mate (Leigh Whannell of Saw fame) and his mum’s boyfriend, Ray agrees to go on the team’s holiday to Bangkok and smuggle a kilogram of heroin back into Australia. After securing the drugs from a crossdressing local Ray fills a dozen condoms with the drug and swallows each one whole. Ray arrives back in Australia only to be apprehended at Melbourne airport on suspicion by the Australian Federal Police. He is kept by the feds (one of them played by the brilliant Hugo Weaving) in a hotel for 7 days until he passes the drugs. What unfolds is a power struggle between Ray, the police, the drug mafia and his intestines.
The Mule is very bloody Australian, with Aussie slang being thrown around left right and centre and even the soundtrack playing crude Aussie songs. It’s hard to forget you are watching a film from Down Under. This is most evident in the laid back Australian humour which works well with the film’s narrative. I mean a man being kept in a room for a week until he shits is pretty wacky and Australian humour translates it smoothly to the screen. Yet I wonder if overseas audiences get the joke. Written by Sampson and Whannell the plot plays between being excruciatingly funny and gruesomely uncomfortable to watch.
Angus Sampson is really the star of the film. With only a little dialogue to work with Sampson portrays with real skill thesensitive Aussie battler going up against everyone who is only out for themselves. Watching Sampson doing something as simple as crying is heartbreaking and it’s easy to sympathise and understand what’s motivating him. Helping share thehuman emotion in the film is Noni Hazelhurst (a national treasure) who plays Ray’s mum. What could have been a stock standard character is given gravitas and authenticity by her performance. It is Leigh Whannell who is the weakest link here playing the slimy friend of Ray. Maybe I am biased because I didn’t like him in Saw but it seems even ten years on Whannell still can’t deliver lines with conviction.
The weirdness of the story and strength of the acting makes it nearly impossible not to invest in Ray. Ray is forced to do things which makes the Human Centipede (2009) look tame in comparison but it is his transformation through the film that allows all the toilet humour to become something with substance. In its third act The Mule suffers from thriller genre cliches involving a corrupt policeman which isn’t necessary to the plot and pulls focus from the main story. This twist feels unnatural to the rest of the film and forces a rushed ending.
So even with my hesitation about the Australian crime genre The Mule separates itself from the pack as a original, funny and entertaining film. If you can stomach its sicker parts you will be glad you stayed with Ray till the end.
THE MULE is directed by Tony Mahony and Angus Sampson and stars Hugo Weaving, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Ewen Leslie and John Noble. It is available in limited theaters, on demand and iTunes on November 21st courtesy of Xlrator Media.