This review of Bull is part of our coverage of the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival.
Revenge movies typically build on one shared pursuit across both sides of the screen. The avenged is seeking justice, and viewers are looking for catharsis. There’s room to play around with the specifics, but that core truth remains — we want to see the protagonist get even. Bull gives that expectation a bit of a twist, though, as not only are we unsure why the man is so angry, but it’s also clear that he might just be a very bad man himself. Who do you root for when evil squabbles amongst themselves?
A burning mobile home. Gun shots. Violence and rage flash across the screen giving birth to the arrival of Bull (Neil Maskell). He’s a man on a mission and has returned to town after a decade away. He’s looking for someone, and his search sees him working his way through past associates — ruffians, thugs, enforcers — and a life he left behind. Where has he been? Why is he back? And how will it all end?
While some movies frontload their narrative with answers and backstory, writer/director Paul Andrew Williams chooses a different route with Bull. Revelations come trickling in through fleeting imagery and answers given under bloodied duress, and as Bull works his way through the town’s more contemptible populace it’s easy to get on board with his journey. We don’t know what he’s after, exactly, but we approve because these people are villains. The wrench thrown into the mix, though, is the steady stream of reveals showing that Bull isn’t exactly a nice guy either.
“Something’s wrong with you,” says a fool to Bull’s face — big mistake — but you can’t argue with the assessment. Bull is as furious as he is focused, and like his animal namesake he’s running roughshod through everyone around him. His monstrous nature finds intense life in Maskell’s performance as he shifts from cold to impassioned and back again in the blink of an eye. Maskell’s no stranger to playing family men engulfed in violence, and if you still haven’t seen Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) this is your reminder to do so. Bull seems wholly unremarkable to look at him, but it’s a soft mirage hiding a rage-filled monster within. That Maskell can deliver that while still retaining and teasing both humanity and pain is no small thing.
The supporting cast is equally strong even if they have less to do. Many of them exist merely to be bad guys and gals well-deserving of Bull’s knife, but there are a couple standouts. Lois Brabin-Platt plays Bull’s wife, and while her time is limited she captures a woman both understandably unhappy and unfairly cruel in her own right. Her dad, Bull’s father-in-law, is played by David Hayman who creates as vicious and mean an antagonist as a film could hope for. He’s also Bull’s boss which both shapes and complicates the fracture that follows.
Williams delivers a smart, sharp-looking film, and while much of it unfolds in dank interiors it finds life peppered throughout. Cinematographers Ben Chads and Vanessa Whyte highlight flashbacks to kinder times with Bull’s son through color and light, and it creates a distinct contrast to the present terrors unfolding. Primary colors get their due through neon-drenched settings as well including a red-lit fairground and the deep blue of a seedy nightclub. The film looks good, and it works to make the brief stabs (metaphorical and literal) of violence hit with that much more power. The knife violence in particular is bloody and cruel in equal measure, and while the film is never over the top with its gore what we see feels suitably painful.
The question of Bull’s own culpability and villainy is an interesting one, and it’s here where perhaps a bit more meat would have been beneficial. Not all questions need answers, obviously, but a little more time spent with the man he was would illuminate the one he’s become. Still, there’s enough here to hang a solid revenge thriller on, and the film succeeds as a sparse little thriller.
At under ninety minutes, Bull is a fierce and fast ride that pulls no punches when it comes to the violence doled out by and towards its lead character. The ending might throw some viewers off, but it’s pitch perfect and no ill-fitting surprise to those who’ve been paying attention. Bull is a man seeking justice, and viewers will find a bloody catharsis. Revenge cinema is a big, messy place, but there’s a corner reserved for mean, well-made little gems like Bull. You wouldn’t want to live there, but you should most definitely pay a visit.
Related Topics: Fantasia Film Festival