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Bull (2021)
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by Jay Seaver

"Revenge with a twist - or, perhaps, just taking the core idea literally."
4 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2021 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Bull" is a revenge story, distilled almost completely down to the genre's essence, so much so that its twist arguably just makes it even more elemental. It is lean, nasty, and tremendously satisfying in its nasty way.

It's been ten years since anybody last saw Bull (Neil Maskell), and that is by and large probably for the best; the audience first encounters him buying a gun, plugging someone off-screen, and then casually tossing the weapon back to the person who sold it to him, apparently not terribly worried about being recognized. Soon he's back in his hometown, but only former sister-in-law Cheryl (Kellie Shirley) is to be found. She's not much help in finding the rest of her father Norm (David Hayman) and sister Gemma (Lois Brabin-Platt), who have moved on in the past decade. Bull used to be part of the muscle for Norm's protection racket, and their falling out was such that Norm and his other lieutenants at the time, Gary (Kevin Harvey), Marco (Jason Milligan), and Clive (David Nellist), are shocked to see him alive, to the extent that they track down his mother Margie (Elizabeth Counsell) to find out if he has some sort of look-alike brother or cousin.

The scene where Norm confronts Margie is not necessarily an important one as far as the plot goes, but it's got a couple of moments which exemplify the almost self-contradictory melodrama of it better than almost everything else. Watch Norm just seethe in anger talking to this 80-year-old woman who spends her days making small bets on the ponies, his declaration that her family was put on Earth to destroy his seeming absurdly hyperbolic, but that's the scale of this sort of feud - everything to those involved, but verging on petty from the outside. Nearly as much fun is the moment when director Paul Andrew Williams and his cinematographer zoom in on a corner of the screen, an doubly-unsettling change in a film whose go-to-way to put the audience off-balance is in how it cuts between scenes.

That bit is a great little showcase for David Hayman, who is all over this working-class gangster who never got around to putting on airs or trying to climb to a higher station. There's nothing admirable about that in Hayman's performance - Norm has no imagination to go with his greed - but there's the veneer of something like that in certain scenes, like when he commits to destroying his son in law rather than deal with the disaster that is his daughter, a father's loyalty coming across as an act of cowardice. His lined, weathered face is the complete opposite of Neil Maskell's round, friendly one; Maskell convinces the audience that maybe Bull can compartmentalize and be a good dad to son Aiden (Henri Charles), but it always twists into something disturbing a little too readily. There's a monster in him that can come out on short notice.

Which is why, based upon the conspicuous absence of Aiden outside of flashbacks, one wonders where he's been for the past ten years, what with Williams never exactly letting the grass grow under his feet. Present-day Bull follows a straight line with little room for anything but revenge, and Williams makes sure that it's never the sort of pretty violence where one admires the staging or sees irony and poetry in it. It's mean and angry violence that reflects the rage that the audience can't help but sympathize with even as they feel some horror at how it has found a willing partner in Bull's existing psychopathy.

By the time the film reaches its end, Williams has done his best to push things beyond "man, did they deserve what they got for screwing over the wrong person" even as he couldn't be more clear about this being how you make a monster. Even at under 90 minutes, it's a rough enough ride that some viewers may be ready to tap out early, and those that make it to the end may want to rewind to a family cookout scene to see if they've miscounted the numbe blonde sisters with similar haircuts, just to see to what extent Norm was on to something or if Bull's rampage was more focused than that.

I'm not sure whether that detail which maybe doesn't matter should have been clearer or if it's an interesting ambiguity, but it's an interesting one, and maybe hints at the film having a bit more rewatchability than one might expect for something this nasty and elemental.

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originally posted: 08/10/21 08:47:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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