Bull (2021): A Lean, Mean Crime Thriller (LFF Review)
Bull (2021) is a brutal tale told with an unflinching callousness whilst offering little reward or glory, only twisted revenge.
Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films (2003-04) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) might have more slicing and dicing and wrack up a higher body count than Bull (2021), but Paul Andrew Williams’ (London to Brighton) new gangland thriller feels like a different, more violent beast. There is no glory to the violence, none of it included for entertainment value. Forget the glorious, cheer-worthy decapitation of O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill: Volume 1; in Bull (2021), hands and fingers are severed and kneecaps are stabbed to no fanfare, with violence depicted in all its savage brutality. Running at a swift and engrossing 88 minutes, Bull (2021) still manages to provide a backstory to pair with the present, which results in a thrilling, throbbing descent into vengeance, and nothing else.
The titular Bull – played by a terrifying Neil Maskell (Kill List) – returns home to an unnamed British town after 10 years, his motives mysterious, with the film slowly revealing who each of the characters are. The first thing we see Bull do is shoot someone three times in a street, assassin-like, with no emotion or hesitation. Talk about setting the tone for what is to come: Williams wastes no time getting down to business. It transpires that he was once a member of a particular crime family, through his marriage to the father’s daughter, before their subsequent divorce sparked a particular chain of unsavoury events and now, on his return, Bull is seeking revenge on those who wronged him. Bull (2021) might not have the most original plot but what it lacks in freshness, it makes up for with an unbridled, unhinged pace, hurtling along at breakneck speed. Williams’ film is not once a drag, with each scene having purpose: that is, for the most part, showcasing Bull’s latest murder, filling in his backstory or shaping the other characters.
Williams’ tight direction and distorted linearity in Bull (2021) would count for less if it wasn’t for Maskell, who morphs into one of the most disturbing, unwavering criminals we’ve seen on screen for years. He carries an almost silent threat for much of the film, with acts of unflinching violence peppered throughout and moments of alarming insanity; one memorable scene sees Maskell’s Bull sitting on a spinning teapot at a fairground with a foe, screaming with manic delight as he severs his former friend’s artery. It’s a horrifying scene, with one character bleeding to death whilst another whoops with joy on a ride. Maskell, whose performance harkens back to his unnerving role from TV series Utopia (2013-14), might play a remorseless killing machine but he never becomes robotic, and adds in just the right amount of humanity.
In Bull (2021) though, there are no truly sympathetic characters. Even Maskell’s character, who may well have been wronged, was still already involved in crime and whose ease at slipping into violence is disarming to say the least. David Hayman (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) is as equally brutal in his role as Norm, the father of Bull’s ex-wife and head of the gang. It is, for the most part, Norm’s way or the highway, and Hayman captures this unwavering one-track mindset quite brilliantly. Ben Chads (Ronaldinho: The Happiest Man in the World) and Vanessa Whyte (Ted Lasso) on joint cinematography duties enhance the unsympathetic characters in all their villainous glory; there is a certain Lynchian feel to the world they create at times. Just like in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), they present an idyllic suburb with a darkness rotting at its core. In Bull (2021), the fairground setting – a place frequented by the characters – is a place built for happiness, but it has a seediness lurking in the neon-drenched shadows. Chads and Whyte distort the setting, with shots of the flashing Ferris wheel reflected in a puddle, hinting at something darker buried within.
Ultimately though, Bull (2021) doesn’t hide anything from the audience. Violence is never shied away from, even in its most gruesome and uncomfortable moments, but Williams doesn’t depict it gleefully or gratuitously. Maskell’s Bull is like a darkness spreading throughout an already murky underworld, with the throbbing, droning original score by Raffertie (Zone 414) dialling the menace up even further. And just when you wonder if Williams’ screenplay is too farfetched, a twist in the conclusion slots everything into place, and somehow enhances that spreading, poisonous threat of Bull even more. This twist might be the only surprise in Bull (2021), which sticks unflinchingly to the crime revenge thriller textbook, but when something is as mean and refined as this, any more twists would only feel unnecessary. Whilst Sexy Beast (2000) gave us a black comedy take on crime and Snatch (2000) took us on a stylised journey through the British underworld, Bull (2021) gives us nothing but naked retribution, served cold with no glory attached.
Bull (2021) premiered at the London Film Festival on 16-17 October, 2021. The film will be released in UK cinemas by Signature Entertainment on 5th November.
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