Bull (2021)

Bull first published by VODzilla.co

Bull opens with three men in a grassy field at dusk, burying something that is still in flames, and then walking away from the smouldering remains. It is an image which will be carefully overturned by the message of the remaining film: that you cannot ever really turn your back on the past, which will always return for its due. 

The film’s protagonist – if not quite hero – Bull (Neil Maskell) once worked as muscle for his father-in-law, the local gang boss Norm (David Hayman), whose will, when verbal persuasion was not enough, Bull would enforce on others with vicious knife-inflicted amputations. Back then, Bull was a paradox: a bad man, but a good father, willing to do anything for his little son Aiden (Henri Charles), even if this put him at odds with his cheating junkie wife – and Aiden’s mother – Gemma (Lois Brabin-Platt), who also just happened to be Norm’s beloved daughter. After a confrontation with Norm and the gang, Bull disappeared from the scene – but now, ten years later, he is back, and a ‘man on fire‘, ruthlessly seeking revenge against all those who betrayed him and left him for dead, while also searching for the son whom he has lost. 

If Bull keeps shifting between past and present, that is to show the connections and continuities between them, all executed by James Taylor’s disorienting edits. While some viewers might at first get confused as to where exactly they are in the timeline, that is no matter, for the whole point is that history – even buried history – is ever present, as sure as actions have consequences, causes effects, and grievous injuries leave scars if not missing limbs. As the protagonist – like the proverbial bull in a china shop – determinedly shoots, stabs and strangles his way through those that have wronged him, leaving chaos and carnage in his wake while inexorably circling in on Norm, Gemma and Aiden, the film also gets ever closer to revealing in full what happened in and around a burning caravan that we have glimpsed from early on. It is that inferno which fuels Bull in his implacable vendetta, and defines what he has become.

In keeping with a filmography that has sometimes offered social realism (London To Brighton, 2006), sometimes horror (The Cottage, 2008) and sometimes both (Cherry Tree Lane, 2010), writer/director Paul Andrew Williams makes a Loachian milieu of bleak suburbia the playground (and indeed funfair) for some heavily genre-inflected action and ultraviolence of an avenging-angel brand. Bull may be working through an increasingly fanciful ‘kill list’ (indeed, Maskell starred in Ben Wheatley’s psychological/Satanic horror of the same name in 2011), but the mundane setting here is more reminiscent of Wheatley’s earlier kitchen-sink crime saga Down Terrace (2009). 

Bull falls into a very particular, if nonetheless varied, tradition of revenge film – think Clint Eastwood’s western High Plains Drifter (1973), Mike Marvin’s drag-racing actioner The Wraith (1986) or, much closer in its contemporary grim English setting and naturalist allegiances, Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes (2004). For in all these films, there is at least a hint of something irrational, supernatural or otherworldly driving the acts of vengeance, and in Williams’ feature too, there is the constant sense of the inexplicable and the uncanny propelling Bull’s murderous rampage. Every one of Bull’s victims is a monster as much as he is, but what unites them all, besides their criminality, is their genuine surprise in seeing Bull back. “I fucking don’t understand, Bull – how can you even be here?”, Marco (Jason Milligan) asks. And later, when for the first time in a decade the incredulous Gary (Kevin Harvey) sets eyes on Bull, he too will ask, “How?” – to which Bull, insisting that the morality of his presence be privileged over the mechanics, will respond, “Not how, why?”. 

The ‘why?’ is easier to answer. For all Bull’s victims know, deep down, that the punishment which he so viciously metes out to them is only what they deserve – a hell of their own criminal making, for what they did to Bull and/or continue doing to others. In the end, though, the film will also address that ‘how?’ in a montage of supplementary scenes which somewhat over-explain what most viewers will already have figured out for themselves. Along the way, there will be blood – as well as an extraordinarily intense performance from Maskell as a man who, for all the horrors that he has himself witnessed, perpetrated and endured, and for all the dogged nastiness of his mission, retains about him something of the little boy lost – indeed the lost soul – that he hopes his own son may not also continue to be. This brings with it the suggestion that a little bit of good can remain even in those who are otherwise irredeemable – and Maskell embodies this principle with a character who, though repellent in almost everything that he does, nonetheless retains our sympathies to the end.

strap: Paul Andrew Williams’ intense domestic crime saga shows Neil Maskell’s gangland enforcer back for brutal revenge in a (mostly) social realist mode

Anton Bitel