If some movies leave you feeling in need of a shower afterward, then nothing short of a colonic will do after a viewing of “The Mule,” an excremental but hardly execrable Australian comedy-drama that plays like the klutzy, sheets-soiling stepbrother of “Maria Full of Grace.” A triple-threat showcase for co-director, co-writer and star Angus Sampson, cast as a lunkheaded amateur crook who attempts to smuggle several pounds of Thai heroin in his gastrointestinal tract, Tony Mahony’s helming debut brings new meaning to the term “gut-wrenching suspense,” its scatological-time-bomb premise lending a darkly funny novelty to the otherwise routine crime-thriller shenanigans. Well traveled on the festival circuit following its SXSW premiere, the pic could enjoy decent theatrical runs.
To his partial credit, oafish loser Ray Jenkins (Sampson) comes by his life of crime very reluctantly, having been content until now to live at home with his parents (Geoff Morrell, Noni Hazlehurst) in Melbourne and work at the local TV repair shop (it’s the ’80s). But his less-than-upstanding best friend, Gavin (Leigh Whannell, who co-scripted the film with Sampson and Jaime Browne), manages to take advantage of Ray’s trip to Thailand with his soccer team, where he persuades the gullible bloke to swallow 20 condoms’ worth of heroin and smuggle it back into Melbourne — all at the behest of a sinister drug dealer, Pat Shepherd (John Noble), whom Gavin’s fallen into business with.
“I wouldn’t be any good at it,” Ray protests at first, and he turns out to be correct, at least initially. A baggage-claim mishap immediately draws the suspicion of airport security, who immediately realize they’ve got a mule in their midst. In short order, Ray is placed in a hotel room under around-the-clock supervision, and there he’ll stay until he’s evacuated his bowels twice and convinced the authorities — good cop Paris (Ewen Leslie) and bad cop Croft (a ferocious Hugo Weaving) — that he doesn’t have any drugs in his system. And thus begins the sort of stomach-turning, sphincter-tightening endurance test that makes the wilderness-survival horrors of “127 Hours” and “Cast Away” look like a walk in the park — or rather a trip to the toilet, which is exactly what Ray desperately tries to put off for as long as possible.
What follows is effectively a tense state of siege, consisting of a series of sharp assaults on Ray’s digestive system: Croft is ruthless enough to serve him breakfast in bed one moment and attack him in the shower the next, while Ray’s mother tries to force the inevitable with a dish of laxative-laced lamb cutlets, a plan that backfires to predictably amusing effect. Yet our heroin-packing hero proves more resilient than anyone would have given him credit for: The movie’s ghastly comic high point finds Ray manfully attempting to ensure that what goes in need not come out — and if it does, well, one must hide the evidence by any means necessary.
There are a few unexpected twists in store: Shepherd’s criminal empire turns out to be unexpectedly far-reaching, and Ray’s dilemma ultimately resolves itself in terrifically clever (and expertly foreshadowed) fashion. But in the end, “The Mule” is essentially a straightforward, somewhat overextended crime story enlivened by its uniquely grotesque circumstances (based on a true story, as noted at the beginning), and directed by Mahony in a lean, no-frills style that’s entirely convincing where it counts. That conviction extends to the roundly strong performances: Noble makes a suitably menacing crime boss, and Morrell and Hazlehurst bring a measure of fierce poignancy to their parental roles. As for Sampson (most familiar to American audiences from the “Insidious” franchise), his turn here is a marvel of mostly silent comic buffoonery, as Ray’s humiliation eventually takes on a genuinely heroic stature — never more so than when, in conversation with his sympathetic attorney (a welcome Georgina Haig), he finds himself involuntarily waiving his right to remain silent.