The Mule, Review NZIFF

Directed by Angus Sampson, and Tony Mahony, The Mule is an Australian film set in 1983. It follows Ray Jenkins(played by Angus Sampson), a simple minded television repairman living with his blue collar parents in Melbourne.

To tersely summarize (and thus avoid spoilers) he is hoodwinked to act as a drugs mule carrying a kilogram of heroin divided into twenty condoms — which he swallows. Due to his nerves and bizarre behaviour at the airport he is stopped and questioned by customs officials.

The two federal police officers (one played brilliantly by Hugo Weaving) take him away on suspicion of transporting narcotics. He refuses to allow doctors to perform an x-ray of his stomach and the police take him to a hotel. By law they can keep him for twelve days without charge in order to recover the drugs once nature has taken its course. Ray is stubborn though — and made further obstinate when the offices teat him roughly. His bowels do not move.

The meat of the film is the struggle between Ray and the officers which takes place in the hotel room. They try to induce him to defecate by applying the good cop bad cop routine, until it proves fruitless (or should I say shitless?) Ray refuses to excrete the globs of heroin bubbling away in his guts, and gets increasingly sicker as a result. On his side is a pretty young blond female lawyer — who is appalled at the tactics employed by the police and fights for Ray despite knowing that he is indeed guilty of drugs trafficking. 

Her role is somewhat superfluous beyond providing a voice of conscience in a chorus of the corrupt. She is also one of two female supporting characters –the other being Ray’s mother — and is the only young female character. Perhaps she represents Australia’s bright future, certainly in this light her remarks on the arbitrary/ironic nature of the yachting craze that has gripped the nation (and the male characters) are vindicated in the present time (Australian yachting? Dreaming).

In a film that deals with the criminal bowels of suburban Melbourne in the 1980s, shit is of course used as a motif. It is used viscerally in the hotel scene where Ray has to decide what to do with the messy drug globs once they have started circumventing his will and pop out automatically. That scene is grotesque, frighteningly realistic (at least I think so), and provides the narrative turn where Ray starts to exert himself. 

Certainly The Mule is at its heart a story about standing up for yourself. Ray is simple minded and trusting, but he has an iron will that others see and often try to break — which they did up until Ray made a simple decision for himself. I can’t say that this is my favourite film of the festival so far, but it certainly made me think and it re-established Australia in my mind as masters of black comedy. I could go on and write about the other characters and actors and perhaps I should, but since this is a review and not a piece of film criticism (there is a big difference) I will leave it there. If you get a chance to see The Mule I do recommend it, just be careful what you eat during it.

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