Sometimes, a film will slip through your fingers for one reason or another. And sometimes, a film won’t even get a chance to do even that; The Smuggler (AKA The Mule) is an Australian hit that hasn’t managed to find its way in cinemas on the other side of the globe, but fortunately has landed on VOD platforms and DVD – so the sad possibility of missing out on this great film, and others like it, is hopefully a thing of the past.
The Smuggler tells the mostly-true tale of a drug smuggle gone wrong. Poor, gullible Ray Jenkins (Angus Sampson), a small-time repairman, is peer-pressured into taking on the unenviable task of heading to Thailand, keeping a kilo’s worth of condom-wrapped heroin in his stomach, and bringing it back to Australia. Of course, he’s pulled in for inspection, and the authorities keep him holed up in a hotel room under suspicion of the drugs that may – or may not – be in his belly. Hugo Weaving and Ewen Leslie are the detectives keeping him under lock and key, and by law, they can keep Ray for seven days to see whether the goods turn up or not. All Ray has to do, in the most epic way imaginable, is to keep it in.
It’s the kind of premise that will either make you retch immediately, or suck you right in – or both, depending on your personal proclivities. Thanks to Tony Mahony and Sampson on co-directing duties, the tone achieved is one that goes pitch-black exactly when it needs to, and gut-bustingly hilarious (poor choice of words) when the mood calls for it. But this never really feels like a black comedy in the vein of, say, In Bruges; rather, it’s a strong character piece that feeds off the terrific performance from Sampson as Ray at its heart, a showcase that grounds the nastier moments in unexpectedly heartbreaking colours (there’s one particular scene that everyone will be talking about). The only weak link is John Noble as Pat Shepard, the local drug ringleader who merchandise is currently in Ray’s system; Noble can play psycho-killer with the best of them, but some of his blood-soaked actions come across as tonally a little too far on the side of gangster picture grotesque – stepping over a line that the rest of the movie so delicately tip-toes on. The same could almost be said of Hugo Weaving’s Detective Croft, whose overtly theatrical presence threatens to overbear the seething tone of the piece; however, once the true reveal comes, where he fits in all this suddenly makes perfect sense.
Try explaining the premise of The Smuggler to a friend; there’s simply no way to get round the human-time-bomb aspect without making it sound like either sadistic torture pornography, or a dark comedy with too much bad taste and too few laughs. In reality, it’s neither – and you can always point your friend to this review, which sings the praises of this singular, well-crafted and bizarrely moving true Aussie story. And just how much of it is true? If we’re being completely honest, we don’t want to know.
The Smuggler – also known as the Mule – is available on DVD and VOD from February 22.