Bull offers genre fans 80 minutes of satisfyingly amoral brutality, but its swing-for-the-fences finale misses the mark.
There’s no shortage of revenge pictures out there; at this point, it’s such a well-trod genre that it’s gone through its own classical-to-revisionist-and-back-again cycle. In other words, Bull isn’t doing anything particularly new, but it manages to forge its own identity by doubling down on eerie, moody atmospherics and a shocking amount of extreme violence. Beginning with Bull (Neil Maskell) purchasing a gun and then casually shooting a man, writer/director Paul Andrew Williams wastes no time diving into a festering underworld of long-buried secrets and familial recriminations. Within minutes, Bull has also murdered middle-aged couple Cheryl (Kellie Shirley) and Ollie (Yassine Mkhichen), as well as a man named Marco (Jason Milligan). Informed of her death, Cheryl’s brother-in-law Norm (David Hayman, almost as scary as Maskell), the local Godfather-type, springs into action, assembling his crew of underlings. Meanwhile, Bull is hunting down his old associates, demanding to know what has become of his son, Aiden (Henri Charles).
In fleshing out this narrative, Williams proceeds along parallel narrative tracks: the present day, as Bull plays cat-and-mouse with Norm and picks his crew apart one by one, and flashbacks to the “good old days,” where Bull was Norm’s enforcer and married to Norm’s daughter, Gemma (Lois Brabin-Platt). It’s through these flashbacks that we discover the full depths of Bull’s sociopathy, and Norm’s willingness to indulge him until it threatens to consume his immediate family. We don’t know exactly what has transpired in the past, which the film teases out over its relatively brief runtime (and we certainly won’t spoil it here), but no one can believe Bull is back after 10 long years. If this sounds kind of like The Limey or Get Carter or Dead Man’s Shoes, it plays that way too. But Maskell’s off-kilter presence and the spare, dark cinematography also evokes the more recent Kill List, and the fractured timeline and emphasis on Bull’s harried, subjective point of view plays like a less phantasmagoric You Were Never Really Here. And make no mistake, Bull is a startlingly vicious movie. No man, woman, or child is safe as Bull seeks his vengeance, stabbing, shooting, gouging, and beating anyone in sight. Maskell’s paunchy midsection and awkward gait belie a ferocious appetite for violence, his cold, dead-eyed stare revealing a man lost in the throes of his own bloodlust. It’s a chillingly effective performance, all the more remarkable for the brief scenes between him and young Aiden, who appears to be the only person on Earth that Bull cares about. There is, however, the matter of the film’s ending. Williams takes a wild swing for the fences, and while one can certainly admire the audacity, it throws the film into disarray. It’s a shame, as the preceding 80 minutes are a fairly satisfying bit of amoral brutality. Bull is recommended for fans of the genre, but with this one unfortunate but considerable caveat.
Originally published as part of Fantasia Fest 2021 — Dispatch 3.