Annie Silverstein’s feature debut, Bull, follows the intersecting stories of an ex-rodeo star turned bull wrangler named Abe Turner (Rob Morgan) and a teenager named Kris (Amber Havard) whose home life necessitates her independence. The two cross paths when Kris breaks into Abe’s house, stealing his alcohol and hosting a party there in order to impress her peers. Instead of turning her into the police, Abe sets Kris to work on his house. But Kris would have preferred to go to juvenile detention.
It is in this moment, sitting in the back of a police car, when Kris’ character first comes into clear focus. With her mother (Sara Allbright) in prison, she takes care for her grandmother and sister, but she sulks through life with an ominous fatalism hanging over her. She might as well already be in prison, because she can’t see any brighter future in front of her.
Abe, too, is a character drawn with an intriguing brush, albeit his character is somehow more withdrawn than Kris’. With his glory days behind him, Abe chews pain pills to get through his shift at the rodeo and drinks alone at night while he ices his sore body. Similarly, his future has no signs of brightness.
As morose as this all sounds, Bull does not often sink into a dour quagmire. On the flip side, there is a glimmer of hope at the heart of Kris and Abe’s relationship, but this is never drawn saccharine. The whole film marches forward with a deliberate sullenness, which for a time is a satisfying depiction of these characters’ lives. As belabored as the pacing may be, it functions effectively inside these two characters’ isolating livelihoods.
Past the midpoint of the film, though, the plot takes a turn that pulls the spark out of this slow-burning ember of a narrative. A subplot involving needing to make money through illicit means becomes the focus of the film’s final act. This subplot reads derivative, and it does little to further Kris’ character in a fruitful way. If anything, this is where Bull slips into the quagmire, becoming too tonally dark for its own good. Given that this subplot propels the film to its ambiguous resolution, it causes the ending to read cold and flat.
Aside from this final act, the character work accomplished in Silverstein and co-writer Johnny McAllister’s script is effective, and the performances that stem from it are impressive. Havard, in particular, does an astounding job of holding the weight of the film’s narrative, providing us with a well-rounded performance from beginning to end. The small role from Allbright is also great. She emanates a worldly kindness that is rarely seen in depictions of incarcerated characters, and this gives her character a heart and a tragedy which is rather flooring.
Bull is a measured film which takes its time situating the viewer within its isolating setting. That its narrative ultimately leads to an oblique and disappointing conclusion is a shame given how strong the performances are.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)