The Mule: SXSW Review

The Mule SXSW Still -H 2014
Narelle Sheehan

The Mule SXSW Still -H 2014

Less jokey than viewers might expect

Angus Sampson plays a first-time drug mule trying not to pass the evidence through his system.

AUSTIN — Somewhat more eventful than a film about self-inflicted constipation promises to be, Tony Mahony and Angus Sampson's The Mule tells the true story of an Australian who, suspected of smuggling drugs back from Thailand, is locked up in a hotel room by cops expecting him to deliver the evidence within a day or so. The wait is considerably longer, and while the film suffers from its own occasional sluggishness, it picks up as the lawmen watching our hero grow as strained as he is. An enjoyably nasty turn by Hugo Weaving, as the lead detective, both keeps the action alive and raises the film's commercial prospects with American fest and arthouse audiences.

Angus Sampson plays Ray Jenkins, a dimwitted footballer whose team is taking a vacation to Thailand despite having no record worth celebrating. The trip is underwritten by local nightclub owner Pat Shepherd (a reptilian John Noble), who has an ulterior motive: One of Ray's teammates, Gavin (played by Saw scribe Leigh Whannell) has been smuggling heroin for him, and for this trip they convince a reluctant Ray to help.

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After swallowing 20 condoms full of the stuff and taking some constipation-inducing pills, Ray survives the plane trip home but arouses suspicion at customs. When he refuses to cooperate with an X-ray or something more invasive than a regular strip-search, the law allows detectives Croft and Paris (Weaving and Ewen Leslie) to put him under 24-hour watch in a nearby hotel. While they wait for their stubborn captive to relieve himself, Gavin and Ray's dad get into their own trouble with Shepherd, whom they've attempted to double-cross.

Playing Ray is a thankless task: For most of the film, Sampson has little to do beyond sweating, writhing on his bed miserably, and saying "no" to increasingly forceful demands that he cooperate. A couple of effects shots take a quick look at the stew inside Ray's bowels, helping us to share his discomfort, but mostly the part comes down to Sampson turning the character's continued refusals into something active and pathetically defiant. There's a flicker of intelligence, or at least aspiration, in the dull man's eyes from the start, but it's only near the end that he becomes a person we can identify with.

The third act benefits from legal wrangling — with a public defender (Georgina Haig) fighting the cops' requests for extensions to the period in which they can legally hold Ray. The detectives' own tempers and misbehavior drive the film more than the gangster subplots going on outside the hotel, adding a twist or two that change the nature of Ray's ordeal. The conclusion, which finally makes use of the America's Cup yacht race we've been seeing in the background throughout the film, is so clever one hopes it's true.

Production Company: 4 Cows & Nervous Tick
Cast: Hugo Weaving, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Ewen Leslie, Geoff Morrell, Georgina Haig, Noni Hazlehurst, John Noble
Director: Tony Mahony
Co-Director: Angus Sampson
Screenwriters: Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Jaime Browne
Producers: Angus Sampson, Jane Liscombe
Executive producers: Angus Coupland, Troy Lum, Bryce Menzies, Michele Bennett, Leigh Whannell, David Griffiths
Director of photography: Stefan Duscio
Production designer: Paddy Reardon
Music: Mikey Young, Cornel Wilczek
Costume designer: Cappi Ireland
Editor: Andy Canny
Sales: Seville International
No rating, 102 minutes