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If you think about it, being a drug mule has to have one of the worst risk-to-reward ratios of any job, roughly equitable to being the royal food taster in medieval times. Let’s see…you get to swallow multiple, latex-bundled packages full of potentially lethal narcotics, any of which could burst, come open or leak out into your stomach, flipping the hourglass on what could be the last, miserable moments of your existence. If this works out, you then get the white-knuckle thrill-ride of attempting to bypass police, customs, airport security and drug enforcement officials, often in countries where illegal drug possession carries a life sentence (if you’re lucky) or something a bit more permanent (if you’re not).

Get through all of that in one piece and you still have to deal with whomever gave you the job in the first place: historically, drug traffickers haven’t been known to be the most trust-worthy folks, so there’s still every possibility that you’ll get a bullet to the face instead of an envelope of cash for your troubles. Of course, if it all works out perfectly, well…you get to repeat the whole process all over again, rolling the dice anew every step of the way. Small wonder they don’t talk about this one on career day, eh?

While drug mule might not be the profession of choice for most, there’s always a first time for everything: under the right (or wrong) circumstances, the role of smuggler’s little helper might be the only one available. This, of course, is the crux of actor Angus Sampson’s co-directorial debut (he shares the role with Tony Mahony), the appropriately named The Mule (2014). Pulling triple-duty, Sampson co-writes, co-directs and stars in the film as the titular character, a meek, down-trodden nebbish who, quite literally, ends up sticking his future right where the sun doesn’t shine. In the process, Sampson and company come up with one of the most intense, unpleasant and genuinely impressive films of last year, a roller-coaster ride where the weak of stomach would be well-advised to keep a bucket close at hand, while those who like their entertainment pitch-black might just find a new favorite for their collections.

Set in Melbourne, circa 1983, we meet poor Ray Jenkins (Sampson), the kind of salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar guy who seems tailor-made for getting screwed over in film noirs. A rather simple TV repairman who’s really into his footie team, loves his mom (Noni Hazlehurst) and step-dad (Geoff Morell) and can chug a pint of beer faster than most folks can blink, Ray seems to have a pretty decent life. He’s also lifelong mates with Gavin (co-writer Leigh Whannell), who happens to be the captain of Ray’s football team…when he isn’t trafficking drugs for the team’s president, the by-turns jovial and terrifying Pat (John Noble), that is.

When the team decides to take a trip to Thailand to celebrate the end of another successful season, Gavin and Pat see it as the perfect opportunity to bring back another half key of heroin. Although he initially refuses Gavin’s request to help mule the drugs, he changes his tune once he realizes that his step-dad, John, is up to his eyeballs in debt to Pat: if Ray doesn’t help, Pat and his over-sized Russian thug will take John apart and put him back together upside down.

Once Gavin and Ray get to Thailand, however, Gavin calls an audible: he purchases an extra half key of product with the express purpose of selling it himself, without Pat’s knowledge. Despite changing his mind and wanting out, Ray is manipulated into swallowing the entire key of heroin, separated out into a multitude of condom-wrapped packages. With a gut full of drugs and enough anxiety for an entire continent, Ray makes it back to the Australian airport but gets busted after he acts like the kind of twitchy idiot who normally, you know, mules drugs.

Separated from his family, his mates and his normal life, Ray is taken to a motel by a couple of hard-ass detectives, Paris (Ewen Leslie) and Croft (Hugo Weaving), after he refuses to either admit to smuggling drugs or submit to a stomach x-ray. Paris and Croft make the situation quite clear: they’ll keep Ray there, under 24-hour surveillance, until they get the drugs…one way or another. From this point on, it becomes a (literal) fight against the clock, as Ray does everything he can to make sure that the drugs stay right where they are. The record for a mule keeping drugs in his system is 10 days, Croft smugly tells Ray: if he can “hold it” for longer, he’ll be a free man.

While Ray is staying true-blue from the isolation of his motel room prison, however, things are a little dicier on the outside. After figuring out what happened, Pat decides that Ray has become too much of a liability and tasks his best friend with the job of silencing him, once and for all. As all of these forces swirl around him, Ray, with the help of his cheerful public defender, Jasmine (Georgina Haig), puts a final, desperate plan into action. Pat and Gavin aren’t the only threats to his existence, however: sometimes, the baddest people are the ones you least suspect.

From the jump, The Mule is a ridiculously self-assured film, the kind of effortless thriller that the Coens used to pump out in their sleep. Despite this being his first full-length directorial effort, Sampson reveals a complete mastery over the film’s tone, triple impressive considering that he also co-wrote and stars in it. There’s never a point in the film where Ray is anything less than completely sympathetic and some of Sampson’s scenes are so unbelievably powerful that it’s rather impossible for me to believe no one saw fit to nominate him for any kind of acting award. In particular, the showstopping scene where Ray needs to re-ingest the packages is one of the most powerful, painful bits of acting I’ve ever seen. The biggest compliment I can pay Sampson is that he actually becomes Ray: it’s an astonishingly immersive performance.

Sampson isn’t the only actor who goes above and beyond, however: if anything, The Mule is a showcase for intense, masterful performances. Whannell, perhaps best known as the co-creator of the Saw franchise, along with James Wan, is perfect as Ray’s best mate/biggest problem. Weaving and Leslie are, likewise, perfect as the bad cop/bad cop duo, with Weaving turning in the kind of terrifying performance that should make folks remember how versatile and valuable he’s always been. Haig does some really interesting things with her portrayal of Ray’s lawyer, adding some shading and subtle deviousness to a character who could have been a crusading do-gooder on paper. Hazlehurst and Morrell are excellent as Ray’s loving parents, with each of them getting some nice opportunities to shine on their own: the scene where Hazlehurst tries to force-feed Ray some laxative-doped lamp is pretty unforgettable, as is the one where Morrell drunkenly confronts Pat and his murderous restaurant employee, Phuk (a likewise excellent Chris Pang).

And speaking of Pat: let’s take a few moments to sing the praises of John Noble, shall we? As an actor, Noble seems to have the singular ability to not only crawl beneath the skin of many a reprehensible character but beneath the audience’s skin, as well: in a long-line of memorable roles, Pat Shepard is, easily, one of Noble’s best and scariest. Riding the fine-line between joviality and cold-blooded, murderous evil, Pat is a perfect villain and Noble lustily grabs the film with both hands whenever he’s on-screen.

While the acting in The Mule is strictly top-notch, it also helps considerably that the actors have such a great script to work with. Loosely (very loosely) based on true incidents in Sampson and Whannell’s native Australia, The Mule is lean, mean and exquisitely plotted, breathlessly swinging from Ray’s motel imprisonment to Pat’s outside machinations with stunning ease. Full of great dialogue, thrilling setpieces and nicely intuitive emotional beats, The Mule reinforces that Sampson and Whannell are one of the most formidable teams in modern cinema. Throw in some excellent, evocative camerawork, courtesy of Stefan Duscio, along with a great score by Cornel Wilczek and Mikey Young, and you have a film that looks and sounds great: there are no smudged brushstrokes or missing lines in this particular “painting.”

To sum it up: I absolutely loved The Mule from start to finish. Smart, twisted, endlessly entertaining and constantly thrilling, it was nothing short of a minor masterpiece. At times reminiscent of the Coens’ iconic Fargo (1996), at other times bringing to mind Sam Raimi’s relentlessly bleak, under-rated A Simple Plan (1998), Sampson’s The Mule still manages to carve out its own unique acre of cinematic real estate. While you might not think that a film about a man steadfastly refusing to take a shit for over a week is your cup of tea, I’m here to tell you to think again: if you like smart, edgy films with brilliant acting, you’d be an absolute fool to pass up The Mule. Suffice to say, I’ll be sitting right here, breathlessly awaiting the next Sampson/Whannell joint: I’d advise you to do the same.