As for the film itself The Mule begins on a less than innovative note by using the America’s Cup race of 1983 to establish its time period. However as the movie progresses the race is transformed from a banal indication of The Mule's period bona fides into a loopy simile for the battle of wills that drives the film. Ray Jenkins (Angus Sampson) is a drug mule who, when caught, refuses an examination that would reveal his wrongdoing. In response the police decide to hold him until he, uh, expels the evidence. Will Jenkins hold on or will the police be triumphant? It’s a bit like the America’s Cup race although I’m still not sure exactly how that's so...
Sampson has the perfect face for this role: with his large lips, weak chin and long forehead emphasised by a particularly awful haircut he genuinely looks like a regular, somewhat feckless, bloke drowning in 1980s Australian suburbia. There’s an obvious class difference between him and the clean cut, suit wearing Det. Les Paris (Ewen Leslie) although this is kept as subtext for most of the film until it’s brought sharply into focus in their final confrontation.
Not that the subtext is subtle. One scene plays as a parody of The Castle’s alternately condescending and celebratory portrayal of lower middle class Australia. Which is fitting because The Mule lands in a similar place: ultimately the rich assholes are vanquished, racism takes a literal beating and the middle class can relax in the knowledge that their moral balance is in the green, no matter how much money they’ve made from selling drugs or how poorly they’ve treated women. (Oh c’mon Glen, It’s all for a laugh.)
The comedy element of the film has been somewhat oversold in its marketing although Hugo Weaving finds the humour in Les Paris’ repulsive partner, Angus Sampson is particularly funny when woozily declaring victory in the rather unconventional contest and Georgina Haig, despite being underutilised, finds a kind of derangement in her crusading legal aid lawyer’s decision to ditch her values for the pleasure of putting one over the cops. For the most part though this is a low key suburban thriller with a jarring edge courtesy of co-writer Leigh Whannell’s horror past.
If I’ve made it sound like a film driven by its performances and script that’s because it is. That’s not to say its cinematography is inept or boring. For example there’s a neat series of rhyming two shots, a good use is found for a garish neon sign and John Noble is particularly menacing as a silhouette behind plastic drapes.
Such unremarkable competence is a good synecdoche for the film as a whole. Its attempt at social commentary is not thoughtless but it doesn’t really get off the ground, its attempt at humour is funny but comes and goes, and its attempt to be thrilling bears uneven results – sometimes uneasily threatening and sometimes jarringly violent.