Tuesday 16 November 2021

Animal instincts: "Bull"

After a promising start to his film career, writer-director Paul Andrew Williams has spent the past decade working exclusively in television (
Murdered By My Boyfriend, The Eichmann Show, Broadchurch); the current theatrical release Bull finds him re-entering the territory of his great 2006 breakthrough London to Brighton. Here is another tough-as-nails thriller that cuts a determinedly bloody swathe through determinedly mundane South Coast streets - a film of overcast skies and on-street parking, with a protagonist who would appear hellbent on avenging himself on the mob who burnt down his caravan. Put like that, you might be expecting something blackly comic along Ben Wheatley lines - and lo, in the title role, we find Wheatley regular Neil Maskell (Kill List, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead). Yet Maskell's really not messing around here. For much of the film's slender running time, he's navigating more or less the same scale of simmering fury Chris Morris presented Frankie Fraser with in the course of TV's Brass Eye. Sometimes Maskell's Bull is operating at a low miff; sometimes he comes on as lightly bonkers; at crucial, 18-rated junctures, he's mad as a lorry. (Best get out of his way.) Even roaming a funfair, he shapes up as not all that much fun, because the scene reminds him of his boy Aiden (Henri Charles), torn from his arms the night his former criminal associates left him for dead.

What's around this barrelling central performance is a small, sorry tale: something like a Fathers 4 Justice sidequest, offering no easy point of viewer identification, and bound for a shotgun-blast finale in a dingy front room. (I suspect Williams had substantially bigger budgets to play with in ITV primetime.) Yet we've all seen enough of these homegrown B-movies to spot one that's been well-managed, for the most part. It takes a while for Williams to get his pieces on the board, and to line up everybody's motivation: where London to Brighton was propelled by the threat of violence rather than violence itself, here the argy-bargy often feels contrived for grabby effect, Williams' way of saying "hey, I'm back". (The nadir may be Bull's attempt to cauterise one of his victims' wounds on a gas hob - not a scene anybody's thought to film before, granted, but once you've seen it, you'll know why.) Yet for a good hour in the middle, it's a taut enough chess game, and the players get to bite down - hard - on appreciably chewy character business; even the aforementioned unfortunate (familiar Poverty Row face Jay Simpson) gets a monologue on middle-age fitness before having his forearm lopped off. David Heyman gives persistent, unnerving growl as the father-in-law trying to get Bull before Bull gets to his daughter; Maskell, the Glenn Gould of onscreen thuggery, somehow finds variations to play on the role's sociopathic theme, though even he can't really make sense of a coda that feels like a misstep or overreach. If London to Brighton was the work of a young filmmaker grabbing us by the collar, this is more of a short, sharp poke in the ribs - blunt but crudely effective, a reminder Williams could probably still do you a job were you to bung him enough cash.

Bull is now playing in selected cinemas. 

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