The Mule

Year: 2014
Production Co: 4Cows
Director: Tony Mahony/Angus Sampson
Producer: Angus Sampson/Jane Lipscombe
Writer: Leigh Whannell/Angus Sampson/Jaime Brown
Cast: Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, John Noble, Hugo Weaving, Ewen Leslie, Geoff Morrell, Noni Hazelhurst

Even when you've finished watching The Mule, you're still not sure if it's a dark Australian Gothic comedy or an effective crime thriller with some funny moments.

But one of the most impressive things about the film is that it hardly matters – star Angus Sampson's directorial debut (he shares credit with an unlikely named co-director named Tony Mahony) has seamlessly blended elements of Tarantino-esque criminal class violence, a sense of genuine menace and danger and some hilarious characters and dialogue.

It's Melbourne, 1983. Australia is gripped in America's Cup fever, and sad sack TV repairman Ray (Angus Sampson) is winning player of the year at his AFL team do at the daggy local club. Poor Ray can barely escape his domineering mother's (Noni Hazelhurst) apron strings, let alone go to Thailand with the guys when the club raises enough money for their team holiday.

But there's another reason the club wants him. The smooth club president and owner/operator of a local reception lounge – Pat (John Noble) – is actually a local crime boss, and he's engaged Ray's former best friend and all-round hood Gavin (Leigh Whannell) to run half a kilo of skag back from his Asian supplier.

Though Ray's mum knows Gavin is bad news, Ray lets himself be talked into the scheme, hoping to give up his dead end job and get his poor Dad (Geoff Morell) out of trouble with Pat thanks to his gambling.

After a night out at a seedy Bangkok club, Ray and Gavin go and pick up the shipment, Ray swallowing it all in condoms dipped in honey. He's so nervous returning to Australia he gives himself away to customs in no time and is promptly taken into custody by two federal police played by Hugo Weaving and Ewen Leslie.

According to the law, they're allowed to hold Ray for seven days on suspicion of narcotics trafficking, so they lock themselves in an airport motel with him and wait for the proof to unceremoniously emerge.

An onscreen title card before the movie says it's based on true events, and you find yourself wondering how much is true. The constantly downcast and henpecked Ray turns out to be a truly legendary criminal, refusing to eat and holding onto his bowels for a week (apart from one truly disturbing scene where he manages to secretly do so and then eat his contraband cargo all over again).

And while the gruff cops are trying to wait Ray out and a crusading young lawyer takes up his case, the criminal underworld of the footy club beyond is in a flurry trying to find out where Ray is, whether he'll blow the whole sting and who has to get killed to keep it under control.

One of the standout aspects of the film is the period detail. Suburban Australia in the early 80s isn't as distinctive or easy to dress up (and satirise) as the flared pants, boob tubes and sideburns of the 70s or the shoulder pads and giant mobiles of the greed-is-good era.

Working blokes drink tallies (that's a full bottle of beer that's bigger than a stubby, if you're not old enough to remember). Houses are small and made of fibro, the McMansion era far off. As Gavin, Whannell has a mullet hairdo that's noticeable enough to inform on his character but not enough to tip over into comic parody. He has a small silver earring, a skittish, snake-like manner that comes out of knowing how much trouble he might be in and somehow Whannell even walks like an uneducated yobbo.

But it's not just the props and costuming or even the language, it's the attitude pervasive in the society on screen. From the dingy football club and tacky reception lounge to the crumbed lamb chops, this feels like a movie that's been made by writers, directors and set/costume artists who've been there and lived it, going so much deeper than just collecting antiques to make it look authentic.

The direction is assured, the camera techniques neither too stoic or too tricksy for their own good, and Sampson gives the best performance we've ever seen from him - which is something considering he spends most of the film either staring through his hangdog expression or curled up in a motel room bed clutching his stomach and sweating in agony.

In the midst of the violence and mayhem (including a truly shocking twist), there are also moments of shriek-out-loud laughter – almost every time the profane Detective Croft (Hugo Weaving) opens his mouth, for one, and the moment you realise Pat is reading the words to The Angels' Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again? as a funeral eulogy.

One of the biggest mistakes a lot of Australian movies have made in the past – particularly in the post Crocodile Dundee era – is to try and trade on the cliches international audiences love on a very superficial level that usually backfires.

What The Mule proves is that to do it right, you need to build the world for your characters and story from the ground up rather than just throw around some 'Australian-ness' set dressing and marketing gloss.

Ultimately one of the influences it will make you think of is Tarantino. The same way his early films so rigorously depict the cinderblock back alleys, 50s diners and grimy, sun-baked streets of the LA criminal underclass (a universe away from the Hollywood sign and Rodeo Drive), The Mule puts you in a time and place you can feel instinctively.

© 2011-2024 Filmism.net. Site design and programming by psipublishinganddesign.com | adambraimbridge.com | humaan.com.au