Review by Geoff Arbuckle
Writer/director Paul Andrew Williams’ revenge film, Bull, made its world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival last week. The gritty suspense thriller stars Neil Maskell and David Hayman. Former gang enforcer Bull (Maskell) has returned from a mysterious ten-year absence to seek vengeance on those who betrayed him. In addition, his innocent young son, Aiden, is also missing, and Bull’s going to find out what’s happened to him as he slices his way through former friends, allies, and employer.
Out of the gate, let me go ahead and say that Bull is about as an engaging 87 minutes as you can get. It operates on a fairly break-neck pace that has about as much fat as a world-class athlete. You meet Bull in the first few minutes of the movie. He’s picked up to do a job and has no issue killing. Then you are immediately transported to the present where he’s meting out vengeance during a scary home invasion.
As the movie slides back and forth on the timeline of the plot, you’re given the details that you need so to understand Bull’s beef. After a couple of those slides between ten years ago and the present, the story starts to bare itself to the viewer, and it’s clear it’s a personal story of a guy who married his boss’ daughter and they had a son he loves a great deal. The wife starts dabbling in drugs and other lovers, and everything comes crashing down on the man as he is only interested in keeping custody of his son as the marriage completely dissolves. Oh, and it should be mentioned that Bull is indeed a very violent man whose boss, and father-in-law, Norm, is also not one to be messed with at all.
All of this is relatively standard fare for revenge movies dealing with some pretty misearbly rough individuals. In fact, I don’t think we meet anyone (outside of kids) in this movie that isn’t willing to get involved with something illegal or, at the very least, unsavory. Yet, the movie is still able to remain accessible and compelling – with only one caveat and a possible deal-breaker final reveal. I’ll circle back around to those two items in a moment.
The film is chiefly a tale between Bull and Norm with Norm’s daughter, Gemma, as a third corner of a triangle. Gemma is a disaster of a human being. She’s the spoiled brat kid of a tough guy. She seems to mostly live life without much consequence because daddy can always “fix” any problem she has. Her primary problems include not being in love with Bull and a massive drug problem (heroin specifically). She wants to start a new life with a new guy, and bring Aiden along with her. Why she wants to keep custody of the kid is not explained, but also unimportant as she seems to be allowed to get what she wants. Bull finds this intolerable and unacceptable. Norm finds his resistance to his little girl’s demands unacceptable and intolerable.
A flashback that appears to be just a fun day at the carnival ultimately was the flashpoint, quite literally, to the final solution taken by Norm against Bull. That was the night that Norm had his guys burn Bull alive inside a camper trailer in the middle of the field. While you might think that would be one of the harder scenes of violence in the movie, whoa boy, you’d be wrong.
This is a movie that often explodes with extremely savage moments that happen with little clue of what Bull is going to do. You know he’s wanting something or angry at someone. You know he will likely act. You are left with zero indication that he’s going to use a butcher’s knife to cut off a guys fingers in one swing or use a hunting knife to saw off a guy’s hand above the wrist and cauterize the wound in the open flame of a stove burner. Meanwhile, there are other instances in which you might expect something terrible to happen, potentially with children involved, and you have to stew on that anticipation of the terrible thing.
I can’t fully explain this, but the violence and those explosions of grizzly cruelty almost feels like a trademark in how the British handle these types of revenge stories. American revenge tends to be a little more punchy and heroic. Our protagonist is going to get into a fist fight with a guy who is trying to kidnap his kid. There’s an altruism to a parent defending their own flesh and blood and our American sensibilities need to make the parent some sort of action hero (see: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando). Bull is a father trying to get back his son and punish those who separated him from it, but it doesn’t feel quite as altruistic in this case. It’s more gut-wrenching and depraved. That is not a bad thing. It’s possibly more realistic. Bull isn’t going to care about the bodies he leaves behind as long as he gets reunited with his son. Anyone and anything can ultimately be collateral damage.
That brings me to my primary caveat and the potential deal-breaker for a viewer of what I think is an otherwise engaging and incredibly well-made suspense thriller from Paul Andrew Williams. This isn’t the easiest 87 minutes to watch. It’s not a movie full of good guys. There are a few truly heartbreaking scenes, but no one in this movie is truly a good person or someone you should typically root for. Bull has a couple redeeming qualities when it comes to his son, but the movie doesn’t shy away from showing us he is a very evil man. Norm is, of course, a bad guy too, but he’s also maybe hoodwinked a bit by a trashy daughter that he values far above anything else despite her incredibly bad history of decision-making. So, to me, this borders on that style of movie that is a difficult watch. It’s grimy and gritty. It makes you feel the violence. It places you into uneasy scenarios and follows unsavory people. That may be a turn off for some people. This isn’t the slick, and as I put it earlier, altruistic type of revenge hero like John Wick. This is “cut a guy’s popliteal artery and let him bleed out slowly” kind of vengeance. It’s a different style that may be a bit tougher for the regular moviegoer to appreciate.
The second caveat is a revelation at the very conclusion of the movie that you’re not exactly given too much preparation. That said, to me, the more I think about it, this is the only way this story could be told. It even connects some dots that you accept in one way and changes its meaning in retrospect. I think it lands, mostly, on the side of clever, but the mileage on this may vary from viewer to viewer.
In the end, I find Williams’ Bull is a fine example of telling a compelling revenge story that keeps you not just excitedly waiting to see where this plot is leading but surprises you quite often to remind you that a very bad man can also be a protagonist. Fans of the revenge subgenre should be pretty happy with the level of violence and grit that the movie provides in spades.
Watch the trailer for Bull from Signature Entertainment.