Tony Mahony and Angus Sampson’s The Mule, written by Sampson and co-star Leigh Whannell, is a strange, gently comedic period piece that does its period proud. Set in 1983, it tells the (supposedly true) tale of Ray, a simple bloke who makes the terrible mistake of agreeing to bring some heroin back to Australia from Thailand to appease his footy club mates. When he gets busted, he makes the painful choice to try and wait out the period the Australian Federal Police can hold him, by “holding it in”. The suspense of the film, bizarrely, is thus whether Ray’s gonna poop before he’s set free.
While this may sound like an idea best left at the pub (or the bong), the film is surprisingly tender, much less a rude comedy than a loving evocation of the Aussie character in the early 80s. The story is pretty distasteful but the acting – and the design – is anything but. It’s really easy to get the ‘80s wrong on film but here, everything is right. Amazing details fill every frame, from the food to the wallpaper, the cars and the beer cans – let alone the clothes and hairstyles. It’s evocative enough to make the film entertaining on design merit alone. Paddy Reardon, the film’s production designer, deserves awards for his work here.
As Ray, Sampson has a pretty thankless role, albeit a brave one, spending most of the movie on a hotel bed in a constipated sweat. He retches and heaves and burps and farts and generally does himself no favours in the glamour department. This gives generous room for the supporting cast to supply the flavour, and they provide plenty. Whannell is deeply sleazy as the team member with the drug scheme, John Noble is truly icky as the club boss, Geoff Morrell gives a great ‘80s suburban dad with a longneck problem, and Georgina Haig is a sparky presence as Ray’s appointed lawyer. But the film is completely stolen – in the best possible way – by Ewen Leslie and Hugo Weaving as the two main cops assigned to get the evidence out of Ray. Using most of the cop techniques we know and some we haven’t seen before, this pair are perfection, by turns comic, threatening and surprisingly human. Kudos to all involved for recognising the possibilities of a project that, on the page, may have appeared simply as a film about two dudes waiting for another dude to poo.