The Mule – Toilet humour with an art house touch. (Film Review)
The challenge in contemporary toilet humour (which we can’t consider abandoning as giggling about our bowel movements and the unique ability they have to offend each of our five senses is a universal form of humour) is freshness; essential when you consider we’ve been laughing at our own toilet habits before we could talk, and #2 was one of the first way’s we learnt to get focused parental attention. Almost every toddler goes through voluntary constipation as a form of protest against perceived oppression at some point and it speaks to the strangeness of our relationship to our own waste that this idea hasn’t been used metaphorically in contemporary culture more often. This ‘problem’ has been more than thoroughly resolved with Angus Sampson and Tony Mahony’s The Mule, A grotesquely funny and wickedly clever Aussie film that comes out today. The Mule is that all too rare combination of penetrating insight and well conceived base humour, and despite its premise – which is largely the suspenseful build up (!) as a man refuses to defecate on the grounds that it might incriminate him (!) – what it has to say about power, authority, Australian culture and our relationship with our body makes it one of the best films of 2014. As if all that isn’t enough, The Mule is set to break that other great taboo, the theatrical release, refusing to be dictated too by the cinemas, and releasing direct to digital download, which is the largest experiment of this kind to date.
The Mule is essentially based on a true story of a small time drug smuggler who ingested heroin filled condom ‘baggies’, got caught and was held in a hotel room for several days as the police waited for him to defecate. The Sampson, Jamie Browne writing team, partnered with Leigh Whannell expand on this idea, extending the wait time and including a number of other parties, all interested in Ray Jenkin’s shit, experiencing long drawn out wait periods of excruciating discomfort as Ray crosses his legs and refuses to comply because without evidence, they can’t convict, and they can only detain him without arrest for ten days. Ray Jenkin’s (a delightful underdog-esque Angus Sampson) has never had this much attention in his life, and while he is torn between not wanting to go to jail and not wanting the drug lords to get at him either, he is also battling his loyalty to his long-suffering Mum (an amazing Noni Hazlehurst) and his best mate Gavin, both of whom come under fire as more and more of Ray’s enemies sense they are his vulnerabilities. Any parent trying to deal with a toddler who refuses to go to the toilet (a power problem that often occurs when toilet training is virtually complete) will tell you the suspense becomes obsessive and this is apparently true in more adult situations also.
Angus Sampson (Insidious, 100 Bloody Acres) steps away from his horror world to play Ray Jenkins as a so-slow-he-might-be-special local boy who is surrounded by either those who want to take advantage of him or overprotect him. His performance is funny and in its most grotesque moments, gut wrenching and cringe-worthy but it is always that of the subdued put upon victim, with a possible hint of game-player awareness. His slightly below average every-man is posited against the 1983 John Bertrand skippered win for Australia 2, footage of which opens and punctuates the film. This anchors The Mule in the early 80’s, and uses a lot of television footage of the day to form a background running commentary on Australian culture (there is a horrible interrogation that takes place with Austen Tayshus’ Australiana laughing in the background). Ray’s underdog status is how the Aussies saw themselves in the race against Denis Connor and the New York Yacht Club, but as the film progresses and we start to understand how few people truly care about Ray and we start to suspect that win for Australia had more to do with class and privilege than Aussie spirit. The way this important cultural moment is slowly turned against what we think it represents is masterful storytelling, beautifully edited with the weight of disparate narrative threads changing definition as the story develops. There are twists and turns along the way but they never interfere with the structural suspense, so that when they emerge from their background they expand Ray and his story into something we realise we never properly understood. Thanks to a brilliantly executed speech toward the end by Detective Paris (Ewan Leslie is who fantastic in The Mule) the sublimated messages emerge and action becomes a question of motivation, not interpretation.
There is plenty of strong performances to enjoy from the aforementioned Noni Hazlehursts overprotective, but desperately pathetic mother through to an attention-bait performance by Hugo Weaving extending his formidable character range further while giving name-needers a good reason to see a film that has deliberately avoided theatrical release. It’s a bold move to scrap the red carpet intros, but as Sampson explains in this interview in The Leader, the aim was to make the film accessible from the audiences perspective. While art direction, production design (Paddy Reardon) and cinematography (Stephan Duscio) count, The Mule hinges its success on a great script and fine performances, but still managing to avoid looking like a television show, or worse a tele-movie. The quality of the product stands the experiment as note-worthy and it will be an exciting time for Australian film lovers to see how it goes.
The Mule opens 21/11/14 and is highly recommended.
You can check it out right now on iTunes, Google Play, Sony PlayStation, Microsoft Xbox and Dendy Direct.