Bull is an impressive and assured British horror-thriller that makes the most of every well-tuned element.
Synopsis: Bull mysteriously returns home after a 10 year absence to seek revenge on those who double crossed him all those years ago.
If you are looking to make a gritty British revenge film based around the mechanics of a shady family, the choice of a lead role is obvious. Neil Maskell is just so good at that deadpan humour-laced hardman character, able to switch on and off the intensity to excellent effect. Bull is no exception and he is on top form as the titular character, given the punchy one-liners that raise a smile as much as the explosions of rage make you sit back a little further in your seat. It is hard to imagine the line ‘spin it like you’re trying to kill us’ delivered by anyone else as effectively but this is a film that knows its strength lies in that mode of delivery and has the confidence in the material. Glimpses of underlying sensitivity reserved mainly for his son, Aidan (Henri Charles) allows the pace of the film to slow occasionally without disrupting too much flow.
The supporting cast is great too, with David Hayman, in particular, dripping with menace as Norm, the patriarch of the family Bull has fallen foul of. There is a constant unease throughout with flashbacks providing context as the narrative progresses. Director-writer Paul Andrew Williams keeps everything balanced on a knife-edge and the whole film carries the air of a slow-burning fuse. You are never quite comfortable within scenes, unsure if an encounter will result in violence or another uneasy, temporary truce. The focus on Bull and Norm for the most part does mean you are left with other supporting characters that are perhaps lacking in much unique development (especially the female characters), but everyone is ultimately delivering exactly what they need to.
The violence, when it occurs is brutal and unflinching but still carries those flashes of pitch-black humour. The plot beats move from relatively dialogue-heavy, even domestically-focused (although steeped in tension and bad feeling) to explosive moments, keeping the film functioning as confrontationally as possible. You can see traces of Williams’ previous works like The Cottage where more comic violence is the focal point, as well as his more gentle television work like A Confession, permitting a few more contemplative pauses. Above all, Bull is assured in its direction, refusing to answer questions for much of the runtime, preferring to pepper in flashbacks to bring focus to current relationships and situations. Some will undoubtedly find some of the later handling a tad clumsy, but it still revels enough in its confidence that it is difficult to not be swept along with it.
Using the funfair location for some of the action, including using the attractions as integral parts of the narrative feels inspired, even if some of these elements may well lose people. A scene set on a waltzer ride is notable for its technical proficiency as well as an example of the film enjoying stretching outside of its expected genre trappings. That experimentation with form is something that sets this apart, again destabilising what you believe you are watching as it progresses. The neon lights in contrast to the other more grey, everyday locations lend the location a sense of otherworldliness and two worlds conflicting with one another.
On the surface, Bull is the kind of thriller we have all seen before, but there is a dark playfulness at work here that makes it stand out above them, resulting in a conclusion that stands to split audience opinion, but makes the film all the more memorable for it.
4 out of 5 stars
Bull played as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021 and will be released in UK cinemas by Signature Entertainment on November 5th.