Bull Review

There will be numerous connections made between Annie Silverstein’s Bull and Chloe Zhaos’s 2017 film The Rider. There’s a similar, documentary-like tone that also involves riding animals, the subculture that surrounds them, and the characters that gravitate towards these powerful beasts. Yet taken on its own, this debut manages to carve out its own path, firmly establishing Silverstein as a director to watch.

The story is a kind of dark twist on the American dream, proving the lie that if you just work hard enough things will go your way. Kris (Amber Havard) is a teen growing up in unfortunate circumstances. She bears the brunt of responsibility at home, injecting insulin into her caregiver/grandmother. Her mom is in jail, and her younger sister (Kiera Bennett) in need of attention. She’s embarrassed by her ramshackle environs and tries to fit in with the other kids in her social group.

When trying to make an impression on these friends she holds an illicit party at the residence of her next door neighbor, a gruff African American named Abe (Rob Morgan) who is away for the weekend performing as a safety man in a bullriding event. Forced to clean up after the mess left, she soon finds herself becoming part of Abe’s world, drawn to the animals he helps tames as a way of finding coping mechanisms for her own demons.

The film feels almost ethnographic in its details of the North Texas community, finding the division between race and class drawn in stark but nonetheless original ways. The world of the rodeos, racially divided, is of particular interest, as the tiniest of details seem to leap off the screen. Bull isn’t your conventional redneck versus black man tale, as satisfying as those seem to be for Oscar voters. Instead, these are members of differing groups, shifting throughout, that each occupy their own rules and practices.

The scourge of painkiller abuse and the prevalent racism of the area are tackled, but these pale compared to the more generous strokes granted to the connection between the young girl and her neighbor, each looking to the other for a way out of their misery. It’s deftly done, without ever feeling overly forced or precious, with both Abe and Kris presented flaws and all.

As each comes to terms with their injuries, both physical and mental, the central metaphor of taming a charging beast with calm and presence becomes more and more manifest. The film does feel like it loses some of its inertia by the end, becoming far more predictable and conventional as it goes along. This does little to distract from the power of performance, and there’s a palpable connection between these two performers that injects the film with its most impressive moments.

While the work may not live up to the poetic presence of other films that it’ll be inevitably contrasted with, on its own, Bull stands as a powerful debut feature from a director with a keen eye for detail and terrific rapport with her performers, many of them untrained. The film easily could have descended into mawkishness, but instead the travails of Kris and Abe feel entirely real, and thus all the more moving. Silverstein takes Bull by the horns and drags us into this world, making us feel a part of these characters, witnessing their strengths and weakness as they come to grips with the challenges of life in their Texas town.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor of ThatShelf.com, Features Editor at DTK Magazine and a critic for HighDefDigest.