The Mule – A dark Aussie comedy all about holding it in

There is a point halfway through new Australian comedy The Mule (2014) that will either make you wince, feel sick, laugh hysterically, or all of the above. It’s a completely out-there moment that sums up the overall audacious tone to the film, and it will certainly be etched on your brain after seeing it. It is also a scene that will potentially make you fall in love with The Mule and its absurd concept. However preposterous an idea it may seem though, The Mule is in fact based on a true story. With a script written by Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell (with a story by Jaime Browne), it focuses on one unlikely guy who finds himself coerced into the world of drug smuggling in an unflinching, hilarious film with dark undertones…and a film that may also have you reaching for a sick bag.

The Mule (2014)

From Pusher (1996) to Blow (2001) to Layer Cake (2004), films all over the world have often explored the subject of drug distribution from the point of view of the criminal. However with The Mule, I seriously doubt you’ve seen this side of the story before… For starters our main criminal isn’t so much an outlaw as someone who falls blindly into the role. Mild-mannered Ray (Angus Sampson) is the smuggler in question, a naïve bloke who suddenly finds himself with pellets of illegal narcotics in his stomach, ready to ship back to Oz for his friend Gavin (Leigh Whannell). However a slip-up at the airport lands Ray in police custody and under close observation until he…passes the goods they suspect he’s carrying. What follows is a clever cat and mouse tale, wholly centred on one guy struggling not to answer that increasingly persistent call of nature.

Yes that really is the concept behind The Mule, and one of the reasons it is so funny. A hilarious and macabre tale set in the early 80’s (which makes for great set design and costumes) Sampson and Whannell’s script is pitch-perfect with the jokes flying fast throughout. Set mostly in the one location – the hotel room the police keep Ray in – it is a bold idea from Sampson and Whannell, who manage to keep proceedings interesting despite the minimal action (although Whannell is no stranger to the restriction one location brings after writing the script for Saw (2004)). Instead they both focus on the rising tensions within the characters, as well as the literal one taking place within Ray’s bowels. Indeed, this is a film as much about the others who face potential disaster from him being found out, especially the character of Gavin (played by Whannell) who finds himself on the run from the nasty drug dealer (John Noble – perfectly terrifying) expecting his goods to be delivered.

Co-writers Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson (who also directs) as Gavin and Ray

That tension in the tale is also maintained through Angus Sampson and Tony Mahony’s confident direction, both of them keeping the pace gripping and creating something that is more thrilling than most action films, despite the only ticking time bomb being Ray himself. They also achieve this level of threat by ensuring they revel as much in the dark side to this tale as the comedy, eking out the more disturbing moments or suddenly throwing us into them, making for a bigger and more shocking impact. And shock they do, death and destruction stalking nearly all of the characters throughout, most of whom are trying to save their own skin at the expense of Ray.

Ah, yes: poor Ray. Used, mistreated, pushed to the edge…it was always going to be a character who we felt sorry for. But identify with? – that’s a lot harder. Yet Sampson’s outstanding performance ensures that we do just that, Sampson creating a likeable and innocent (well, apart from the illegal drugs) bloke in Ray, who we are with every step of the way. Softly spoken and looking like a giant cuddly teddy bear (always bending slightly to hide his extra height and remain unnoticed) it is also a hilarious performance from Sampson, who is sometimes able to get a laugh just from a carefully placed deadpan expression. If Ray is the relatable sweet guy of the story, then Hugo Weaving’s cop is the bitter cold-hearted bastard and another character that makes The Mule so watchable. Relishing the role and the chance to play a bad cop to Ewen Leslie’s good cop, Weaving gets all the best jokes (as well as a perfect entrance) and nearly steals the entire film. Yet it is Sampson who still impresses the most in this and who, along with the taut script and expert direction, keeps us hooked throughout, as we remain desperate to see how or if luckless Ray will survive.

The angry arm of the law: Hugo Weaving and Ewen Leslie in The Mule

With an underlying theme of how not all is what it seems, especially when it comes to people, and with a hilarious script and expertly paced direction from Mahony and Sampson, The Mule is a winner – a film you can tell was made with real love and care from all involved (something that shows in every frame). The concept, while disgusting, is bold, clever and absolutely gripping, a description I never thought I’d give for a film about someone trying not to go to the toilet. With a perfect performance from the inherently likeable Sampson, this is a great comedy with a satisfying and disturbing dark centre. Just make sure you have a strong stomach when you watch it…

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~ by square-eyed-geek on December 24, 2014.

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