The Mule Review [SXSW 2014]

Matt Donato

Reviewed by:
On March 14, 2014
Last modified:March 20, 2014


In-your-face, risky, and graphically raw, The Mule doesn't shy away from any disgusting details about drug smuggling gone wrong, and it's a better movie for it.

The Mule Review [SXSW 2014]

The Mule – a highly uncomfortable, sometimes stomach-churning watch not about an animal, but a drug smuggler detained for days on end with a gut full of cocaine filled condoms. Written by Saw scribe Leigh Whannell and his buddy Angus Sampson (Tucker from Insidious), this may sound like Whannell’s typical horror scripting, maybe having the mule turn into some crazed zombie after the cocaine invades his system (movie idea?), but audiences instead observe the dramatic, yet darkly comedic story of one man’s marathon “prairie dogging” run. Our nefarious duo create a criminal period piece oozing new-wave tunes popular with the culture and time, offending viewer’s senses with bodily gross outs that some might find off-putting – but as an adaptation of truths, The Mule surprisingly delights.

Angus Sampson plays Ray Jenkins, a club baller who lives a simple, almost sheltered life at home. After winning a yearly award, his buddy Gavin (Leigh Whannell) offers the typically straight-edged athlete a chance to make some dough doubling as a drug mule after the team’s exotic vacation. Shrugging off the idea at first, Ray eventually decides the extra money could do some good, and agrees to the task. Swallowing around 20 condoms full of narcotics, Ray almost makes it home before he nervously loses his cool in front of security, landing him in a nearby motel so the drugs can flush out of his system. Under the watchful eyes of Detective Croft (Hugo Weaving) and Detective Paris (Ewen Leslie), Ray struggles to keep his secret hidden, inflicting bodily harm by avoiding deification. Can Ray keep himself out of jail by swallowing more than his pride, or will the drugs make their appearance in the filthiest of ways?

When I say The Mule is a dark comedy, I don’t mean it’s consistently funny or full of laughs – but instead hesitant chuckles sprinkled throughout an almost tragic tale. We’ve seen Whannell inject comedy into movies like Insidious and the upcoming Cooties, plus Sampson is actually a pretty funny dude (YouTube his international clips), but Ray Jenkins’ hotel stay focuses more on biological suspense and a subdued gangster backdrop that adds criminal intrigue. A straight-and-narrow balance between tones doesn’t create humor through jokes and goofy predicaments, but instead incredulous human feats and sadder moments that some might consider defeat – but in reality, these are small victories for Ray.

The Mule becomes an uncomfortable movie for some, as the gruesome details of Australian justice are exploited and covered in bodily fluids. Kudos to Angus Sampson, because certain moments are downright gag-worthy, inciting more howls, groans, and incredulous screeches than Whannell’s typical Saw torturing. Sure, Sampson has the power of movie magic on his side, so I understand how the actor stomached such grueling material, but audiences didn’t react the same way. Journalistic voices I trust left The Mule feeling their own bit of sick, turned off by unfavorable visuals and the stinky smell coating every “offensive” scene. Heed my warning – this is not dinner-and-a-movie fare.

Personally, I wasn’t queasy leaving The Mule, instead indulging in the splendid cast that our team threw together. Aside from Angus Sampson sporting leading man talents while writhing around in bed with a narcotic time-bomb ticking in his belly, and Leigh Whannell playing a shifty deviant contemplating all actions while his mule sits under police custody, one big name boasts commanding presence – Hugo Weaving. Playing bad cop Det. Croft to Ewen Leslie’s Det. Paris, Weaving delivers a gruff, old-school role that balances obsession and intellect, with a little physical torture to boot. A cat and mouse game between Ray and Agent Croft slyly unravels, as obvious clues hint at Ray’s guilty predicament, but Croft is handcuffed by lawful actions. He can’t just cut open Ray’s stomach and extract the drugs, Ray has to pass them “naturally,” and there’s only a small window in which Croft can “gather” the evidence. Weaving’s charismatic intensity makes Croft an addictive, intriguing character, as we wait patiently to see what tricks he’ll implement next that might break Ray’s fecal dam. Good grief.

Sometimes a soundtrack just sits idly by and provides background noise, but The Mule happens to sport a lively, defining score by Cornel Wilczek and Mikey Young that carries a rocking new-wave vibe, becoming a character itself. The tuneage hones the period mentality and highlights other era factors like hair stylings and clothing choices, tying together an inspired story with loud, dominant riffing worth the soundtrack purchase.

I’m not sure what enjoying The Mule says about my taste in cinema, but while other viewers felt violated by Angus Sampson’s constipated journey, I found enjoyment through technical aspects and ballsy international filmmaking that takes risks and blends numerous genres in an incredulous yet unique cocktail. Whannell and Sampson offer a unflattering look into drug smuggling culture, one avoiding sugar-coated action sequences or silly stoner comedy. The Mule is a viciously stripped-down bit of periodic storytelling that highlights a drug mule’s worst nightmare, refusing to gloss over the grimiest, most abhorrent visuals imaginable. Raw, intense, and heroically crafted, I’ve never felt more violated by a movie I fully enjoyed.

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The Mule Review [SXSW 2014]

In-your-face, risky, and graphically raw, The Mule doesn't shy away from any disgusting details about drug smuggling gone wrong, and it's a better movie for it.

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