The Mule marks the Directoral debut of Angus Sampson and Tony Mahony, starring Sampson as Ray Jenkins alongside Leigh Wannell (Gavin) as “brothers in life”, with Gavin roping Ray into becoming a heroin mule following a trip to Bali.
After getting nervous at Sydney Airport, he gets taken away by the police for suspicious behaviour and in refusing to undertake an X-Ray (knowing he has a terrible amount of heroin inside him), ends up forced into isolation under the watchful eye of Hugo Weaving (“Croft”) and Ewan Leslie (“Paris”) until he “relieves himself”. A bizarre game of cat and mouse follows as a bed ridden Sampson – a notably likeable character – tries to work out a way to get himself out of the mess he’s found himself in.
Set in 1983, the film cleverly runs parallel the America’s Cup of that year, with an outcome any Australian will know… while the events on screen could go either way.
The film’s focus – his days spent under the watchful eye of the police – is a painful experience. Sadists may enjoy, but the rest of us may struggle to endure. You see Sampson kicked, beaten and do things that I don’t even want to repeat. Perhaps that’s the point, as you battle on along with Sampson to try and beat the cops at their dodgy game. But as the police play bad cop – badder cop, and the crime world around him comes crashing down, you can’t help but feel like Sampson and Mahony may have made the whole experience more painful than it needed to be. For some, it will be a hard pill to swallow (pun intended) but for others it will be a wholly enjoyable affair. I found myself somewhere in the middle.
Even though you do want to see Sampson win amongst the madness that surrounds him, there’s just barely any respite from the negativity that crowds the screen during the film’s middle act. There’s that much bad shit going on (pun intended) that you even begin to wonder if he’s got anything worth going back to – even the amazing Noni Hazlehurst as Sampson’s Mum proves herself a troubled soul. I look back to a film like the underrated Gettin’ Square (2003) and wonder if the film may have served from some David Wenham-like comedic distractions, during its middle act – though admittedly Weaving does get points for trying.
But as much as the middle act requires endurance, the lead up is as entertaining as it gets. A strong script with some great dark comedic moments help lead the film nicely. Sampson is brilliant in the role – as are all its players. Seeing Hugo Weaving bring us back to some Matrix memories is a pleasure, and if there’s any comedic interference, it’s Weaving being Weaving. Then there’s also John Noble playing the archetypal crime family boss, which he does with ease (and we’d expect no less). It’s also a terrific story, told quite timely in the wake of the unwarranted and rather frustrating obsession with the Corby family.
But the way they’ve told it could have perhaps done with some further editing. The crime world that surrounded Sampson and got him into the mess to begin was where things were most interesting, and I think if more attention was placed there, some of the more un-pleasantries could have been more palatable.
Maybe I’m just being precious, as I know some people in the cinema found it hilariously entertaining from start to finish, but ultimately I feel there was a better film in here than the cut before us now. I’ll be curious to see how the film is received elsewhere, as I imagine I’m not alone. But maybe I am. Personal preferences aside, Sampson and Mahoney have proven themselves fine directors, even if they didn’t hit this one out of the park, and I have no doubt the film will find itself a grand audience. A strong script, excellent performances, stellar score and superb cinematography makes this a technically sound effort. Just don’t go into it on a full stomach!
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Mule was released in select cinemas and digitally in Australia today, November 21st. Follow the movie on Twitter for all its release details and updates.
This review was originally published during SXSW 2014.