Ray Jenkins (Angus Sampson) has always been a bit of a joke, what with his poor social skills and a mother (Noni Hazlehurst) who still dotes on him, he’s tied to her apron strings even though he’s a grown man. He works as a television repairman where he has to put up with all sorts from his boss since the only other place he could work is many miles away in the next town, so when he wins the local social club’s man of the year prize he finds himself with a chance at an alternative arrangement for income. The trouble is, it’s illegal, as his best friend Gavin (Leigh Whannell), who is no friend at all, wishes Ray to become a drugs mule on his award, which is a trip to Thailand; he is reluctant, but there is a lot of pressure on him…
Though that’s nothing compared to the pressure on his bowels when he is swiftly caught after losing his nerve at Australian customs. This was purportedly based on a true story, though writers and stars Sampson and Leigh Whannell admitted that was more in a Fargo sense than it was in a being open with the facts sense, but it amounted to a tall tale which nevertheless needed a strong stomach to get through, admittedly not as strong as the protagonist’s. Those writers had been busy forging careers in Hollywood away from their native Australia, but whether out of the goodness of their hearts of out of wishing to say something about their homeland, they returned to make The Mule, or The Smuggler as it was renamed presumably to stop potential viewers thinking they were in for an animal picture.
Though Whannell in particular was best known for his horror movies by this stage, this was promoted as a comedy in spite of the laughs being tempered with some very serious scenes and some withering commentary on Australia. It’s likely that the only person who can truly criticise a nation is one who was born and bred there, they will pick up on things and pinpoint the flaws that outsiders may not, resulting in an all too accurate take down of the country, and so it was here in a film that took a dim view of Aussie culture and society. As an ironic counterpoint to the unpleasant realities of life depicted in the movie, the characters were regularly distracted by the Americas Cup yachting race broadcast on every television we see, as this was set in 1983 students of sporting history will know Australia did rather well that year.
Yet here was a story that took no pleasure in patriotism when it apparently felt it was masking several serious issues, not least the corruption and atmosphere of bullying that was endemic in the society, leaving the hapless Ray to flounder as the criminals strongarm him into swallowing a load of condoms filled with heroin which we can tell he is only agreeing to because his stepfather and best pal demand it, and also because he fears for the safety of his mother. This woman was probably the only moral character in the plot, rejecting the wrongdoing as she attempts to set an example for her son and see to it that he remains protected from a pretty nasty bunch who represented the majority of Australians. It was to that country’s cinemagoers credit that they took some scabrous criticism in their stride, mostly because it was presented with a degree of humour.
And in addition because Ray does gradually turn from simpleton taken advantage of by all and sundry to someone curiously heroic, far smarter than those who underestimated him (i.e. almost everyone) would believe. He spends most of the film in a hotel room as the cops, led by Hugo Weaving at his least attractive, play a waiting game: they are well aware Ray has swallowed the drugs, and that they have to come out eventually, so are fully prepared to allow nature to take its course and gather their evidence. In a very decent cast, Georgina Haig impressed as the right-on lawyer who also knows Ray is biding his time, and John Noble was the pillar of the community whose avuncular persona hides his criminal activity, but it was Sampson’s film, mostly by dint of the woozy, pained expression he managed to sustain for the whole of the rest of the movie. And if there were awards for bravery, the fact he took part in one of the most revolting scenes in Australian cinema would surely be reason enough to acclaim him in a film that sounded unpromising, but far more accomplished than you’d expect. Go to the loo before you watch it, though. Music by Cornel Wilczek and Mikey Young.
[Trinity Films' DVD has featurettes, cast interviews and deleted scenes as extras.]