SXSW 2014: THE MULE Review

     March 13, 2014


You better wait to eat until after seeing this one – if you even have an appetite after anymore.  Co-directors Tony Mahony and Angus Sampson’s The Mule doesn’t fall in line with the Saw films or Insidious, but co-writer/co-star Leigh Whannell does give it a horrific quality of its own..  You may never want to experience certain sequences from this one ever again, but they do bolster the effect of the full film, justifying their inclusion.  Hit the jump for my review.

the-mule-posterThe Mule features Angus Sampson as Ray Jenkins, a nice, kind guy who’s just a little too naive for his own good.  When Ray’s longtime buddy, Gavin (Whannell), pitches him the idea of smuggling drugs for some quick cash, Ray reluctantly agrees to do it, swallows quite a few bags of narcotics and attempts to fly back home to Australia, waltz through customs and collect his earnings.  Trouble is, Ray loses his cool and gets nabbed by the Australian Federal Police before he can make it out the door.  When Ray refuses to come clean and tell the cops what’s floating around in his belly, they make it so he has to by confining Ray to a hotel room and monitoring him around the clock until he can’t bear to hold in his secret anymore.

The Mule’s first troublesome components are the rather thick Australian accents.  It becomes less and less of an issue as the story progresses and you start to fall in step with the beat of the film, but it certainly gets off to a rather slow start because it requires effort to hear and absorb all of the details, making it take too long to get your bearings.

However, even if you don’t quite understand that Ray’s football team is taking a trip to Thailand at a dubious nightclub owner’s expense just so that he can have Gavin bring him the drugs on the way back, the scenario still has a great deal of weight thanks to Sampson.  Ray doesn’t speak much, but is capable of conveying more emotion than even the chattiest characters in the film.  In just a single look, you know how Ray feels about the proposition, why he changes his mind, and then how heartbroken and terrified he is when he’s caught.  Ray absolutely comes across as senseless and socially awkward, but Sampson also insures we do get a hint of how aware and capable he really is so that when he’s locked away in the hotel, you know how far he’s willing to take it.

And that’s where the film really starts to bounce back.  The actual planning of the smuggling is tough to follow, but once it happens, Sampson powers through the rest of the narrative, delivering a strikingly telling and somewhat disturbing performance.  Ray is stuck in that hotel room with 20 condoms packed with narcotics in his stomach.  When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.  Ray knows it, the audience knows it, and each and every step of this process makes both him increasingly uncomfortable and the viewer, too.  Even simple things like eating a decent looking meal is cringe worthy because you know each and every bite brings him that much closer to letting it all go.

the-muleEvery step of this process will make you squirm, but there’s one incident in particular that is so tough to watch, it could be a tipping point for some.  It’s funny because after watching Whannell’s scripts rip victims limb from limb for years, it took one nasty poop incident to make me look away.  The Mule is well-written and well-made no matter how you look at it, but, regardless, it will come down to whether or not you can stomach the situation.  (No pun intended.)

In addition to the battle raging on in Ray’s belly, Gavin also gets himself into quite a bit of trouble.  He’s been working with that club owner, Pat Shepherd (John Noble), all along, so when Pat doesn’t receive the haul after the trip, he goes after Gavin.  This is an element that’s severely weakened by the accent issue at the start of the film.  It takes a little too long to put the pieces together and fully understand Pat and Gavin’s arrangement, but, once you do, it does serve as an adequate breather from the storyline going down in that hotel room.

Sampson is the heart of this film.  No matter who’s doing what, it’s most powerful when Ray is directly involved.  For example, Ray’s father is also being hounded by Pat due to an overdue debt, but it isn’t woven into Ray’s storyline well enough to truly care.  The officers leading Ray’s interrogation run into a similar issue.  Croft and Paris (Hugo Weaving and Ewen Leslie) are two dynamic characters that are fun to track, but only in conjunction with Ray’s situation.

Clearly The Mule’s sub-plots are less effective than the core concept, but even then, those escapes serve a purpose.  In order to make The Mule a watchable film, you need them.  Ray gets more and more uncomfortable each day of his confinement and thanks to the powerful connection to the character, you’ll get more and more uncomfortable watching it.  The Mule is so good in that respect that you’ll never want to experience it again.

Grade: B

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