The Mule

THE MULE. Starring Angus Sampson, Hugo Weaving, Ewen Leslie, Leigh Whannell, John Noble, Geoff Morrell, Noni Hazelhurst. Directed by Tony Mahoney and Angus Sampson.  104 minutes. Rated MA (Strong coarse language and themes).

Those with long memories might think of Francis, the talking mule, so popular in the 1950s and with television screenings. Those whose memories do not go back so far will probably think of drugs and smuggling and those who carry the drugs, the mules. The latter is the meaning of mule for this film.

It starts with broad humour, Ray, Angus Sampson (who co-wrote and co-directed the film) is in a very awkward and embarrassing situation with customs officials at Melbourne airport. Some of the humour continues as the film goes into flashback.

It is a scene at the local Paradise Club in Melbourne’s western suburbs, in Sunshine (lots of shots of local streets, homes, railway lines). They are about to make the award for their outstanding member of the year. The gawky Ray unexpectedly wins, much to the exuberant delight of his mother, Noni Hazelhurst. At home, he is quiet, fussed over by his mother, his step father telling him how lucky they are in life, even as his wife reminds him he has done his limit on his beers for the meal.

Another aspect of the humour is that the action is set at the time of the winning of the America’s Cup in 1983. The developing battle between the US and Australia is seen throughout the film, people watching the television, at home, at the club, in the motel at the airport, so that paralleling Ray’s experiences, there is the victory over the Americans, the cheeky Aussies toppling the top dogs.

Meantime, all is not so funny at the club and the film and, step by step, the film goes into the serious mode and the world of drugs and smuggling. The local kingpin, played by John Noble (the progressive Bishop in the series, Devils Playground) relies on a huge Lithuanian thug as well as a young Asian to do his violent dirty work. But he also has one of the local dimwits, Gavin, played by Leigh Whannell (who was one of the originators of the Saw series of horror films), try to persuade Ray to take the prize holiday in Thailand and bring back some drugs.

Despite expectations, Ray decides to go, goes to a number of parties in Thailand and, for reasons that puzzle us for the rest of the film, decides to swallow the sachets of heroin. We then go back to his arrival and the treatment by the customs officials and his willingly going with them. But, he refuses an x-ray, has a young female lawyer who believes in him to help him, and will not confess to having the drugs.

Which means then that he is in police custody for seven days, taken to a motel near Melbourne airport, supervised by the police – who then get a judge to extend their holding him another three days, then another day and a half. It also means that we share Ray’s diet experiences, his refusing to excrete the sachets, to the annoyance of the police, and a scene where audiences might be looking away when he makes a decision after an accident as to what he is going to do with the sachets…

This is a suburban version of the drug big time, the kingpin having his limitations, ordering his thugs to exercise his violence, ordering Gavin to find out what is going on, putting the pressure on Ray’s family, especially his stepfather who complicates the plot development when it is revealed that he has a gambling problem and a financial dependence on the kingpin.

We can’t but be on Ray’s side as he stays with his constipation, is visited by his mother with food, is encouraged by his lawyer, is visited by Gavin, has a police guard in the room who nods off, watches television and is particularly inept. But it is two officers who are in charge who provide interesting characters and interactions. Hugo Weaving plays the aggressor, bad cop, Ewen Leslie is the well-dressed, rather quieter, good cop. The two provide some unexpected plot twists making the end of the film more interesting and more dramatic.

With the number of Australian stories about drug mules from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and their dire experiences in prisons in those countries. This is an Australian version, rather different in tone, but nonetheless, well done and surprisingly interesting.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

eOne. 

Released for specialist cinema screenings, VOD on November 21st, DVD in December.