Fantasia 2021: Bull
One of the best kinds of revenge thriller is the kind that knows it has nowhere to go but straight into the heart of darkness. Paul Andrew Williams pulls no punches in his latest film, Bull – a brutal revenge film that pits bad people against an unstoppable force. It’s a barnburner of a movie that, thanks to the always impressive Neil Maskell in the lead, keeps its head on even when it’s spiralling into the darkest depths of depravity.
Why Bull (Maskell) wants revenge is perhaps the most stylistic choice in the film, utilizing flashbacks intermittently to catch viewers up just before Bull takes out another person. All the audience knows is Bull’s son is missing, and it has everything to do with the mob he used to work for as an enforcer. Left for dead and trying to find his missing son, the minutiae justifying his sudden arrival ten years later (as opposed to anything less) is just as unknown to the audience as it is to his targets – which makes every moment with its lead character a haunting, suspenseful experience for both.
All credit is due to Maskell, who delivers a menacing performance that fits right at home with other British revenge thrillers that have been willing to get this dark. Through flashbacks, we get glimpses into him as a human being (albeit a violent one), but in the present day, it’s mostly a man seeking vengeance and answers. At a certain point, Bull isn’t someone you can fully sympathize with, but there is justification in his quest – just not necessarily the actions he takes.
Those actions are where the violence can get a bit gnarly, especially with Bull’s emphasis on using knives and playing with his victims before killing them. It’s par for the course for a movie this bleak though, and eventually, the all-consuming violence of it is justified by the film’s final reveal. But it’s still hard to take as the film is progressing, especially since the movie starts at such an extreme and then gradually spoon feeds tiny morsels of humanity to the main character. It’s a tall ask for a film that is regularly asking the viewer to be on board for its savagery.
However, buying into it rewards viewers with a special kind of darkness. Quiet, slowly paced conversations oozing with tension; the constant back-and-forth the film offers of who is the worst in this situation; the performances laced with extremely dry humor; the sudden, lingering fear of Bull appearing and setting the world ablaze – it all culminates into an atmosphere that is oppressive and filled with despair. There’s an acceptance that when Bull shows up, there is no saving grace. It’s revenge from someone that cannot be stopped.
Taking its cues from many other British revenge thrillers, there are a lot of formulaic and expected tropes, including its refusal to ease up on the descent into brutality. So many scenes are quietly discomforting, but they’re not fresh or exciting. As with its protagonist, the genre is also stubborn in its trajectory, with the only invigorating elements held back for the end of the film. While the decision to incorporate flashbacks throughout Bull ends up giving the film a bit more of its own personality, it also shows that without that single decision there isn’t much else to latch onto besides the viciousness. Characters outside of Bull just aren’t interesting, and mostly feel like fodder, even with basic, rudimentary attempts to humanize them.
Despite how formulaic its plot can get, Bull makes a daring choice in the end that forces it to stick with you a bit longer than it would otherwise. It’s a depressing film that only leans deeper into its cruelty as it goes, which is exactly how a revenge film should ultimately be if the one enacting revenge is depraved and consumed by vengeance. Williams has no interest in redemption as a concept, instead Bull is a controlled act of aggression that takes its characters deeper into Hell and leaves them there.