Perhaps it's fitting that a crime drama about constipation should take so long to get going. Directors Tony Mahony and Angus Sampson's tense true-life Australian drug-trafficking ick-out The Mule opens with a sweaty Ray Jenkins (Sampson) dropping trou and spreading for airport security, his face straining for a blithe cluelessness — he's clearly trying to play-act he has no idea why he's being asked to do this. Then the movie doubles back to days before, to the events that led to this, a wearying J.J. Abramsian editing technique that dumps us into a story at its high point but in this case leaves audiences wondering, "Wait, the excitement this is all building to is a cavity search?"
So yes, The Mule proves a tough sit, but by the end you might be satisfied you gritted through it. Sampson plays Ray as the least interesting fella in Melbourne circa 1983, the film's dreary first third capturing his go-nowhere life in too-familiar terms: He's got a bad job, small dreams, a bedroom at his parents' house, and a joke of an award from his "footie" club, honoring him for showing up. (Sampson also cowrote the script.) Like all nice-guy movie losers, he needs an adventure to shake him up. Problem is, Ray's journey toward self-actualization kicks off with his swallowing 20 condoms stuffed with heroin at the behest of a local gangster. The plan: Ray will go to Thailand, scarf down the drugs and some pills to stiffen up his bowels, and then cross back through Aussie customs.
Once it catches back up to its first scene, The Mule improves. Ray proves a miserable smuggler, drawing the suspicions of federal police officers, played by Hugo Weaving and Ewen Leslie. But he doesn't crack, still playing thick-witted victim. They hold him on suspicion and hole up with him in an airport hotel; there, for the next six days and counting, the cops and the crook wait around to see what comes out when Ray finally defecates. But turns out stolid, dopey Ray has a talent after all: holding it in. Scenes among the three principals have a taut, urgent nastiness, especially as Weaving's officer proves monstrous, assaulting Ray first with a too-hot shower and then with kicks to the naked body. Throughout, Ray moans and sweats, clutching his tummy and souring his bedsheets, but the few moments when he takes action prove rousing — and, often, disgusting. There's much to squirm to as he conceives of new, nasty methods of keeping the drugs inside him. The challenge is infectious: You lose points if you can't get through the film without nipping off to the bathroom.
The film's one-set, play-like centerpiece is augmented by rote Mob-enforcer scenes involving Ray's family, but at least these give you some time to think about something nonintestinal. By the end, Ray's cleverness is almost enough to make him a character worth caring about — although the idea that drug-running makes Ray a better person demonstrates the inherent meaningless of so many white-people crime flicks. It didn't work out so well for Maria Full of Grace, remember?