In Cinemas

Bull review – revenge thriller falls prey to tropes it wants to debunk

Paul Andrew Williams' gangland crime film tries to subvert genre expectations but is let down by formulaic choices and bland acting

It is clear from the very first beat that Bull is about a man with a mission to accomplish and nothing left to lose. Here, the titular character (played by Neil Maskell) goes from one encounter to another with rage in his eyes and blood on his hands, toppling people like dominoes in a game entirely devoid of winners.

Bull is a walking ghost, having vanished a decade before his ominous homecoming. When asked where he's been for many years, he solemnly – but promptly – replies, “Hell,” the weight of this single word enough to cease any further interrogation. One must wonder, then, how bad this limbo must have been to cause shivers in a man who hails from a gang-dominated pit where a normal Thursday sees fingers chopped at the root and houses burned to the ground.

A gang member himself, Bull obliterated his chances of escaping this purgatory of a town by marrying Gemma (Lois Brabin-Platt), the daughter of crime boss Norm (David Hayman). Together, the two had Aiden (Henri Charles) and – as with all of life’s twisted endeavours – the same paternal joy that introduces Bull to an unprecedented glimmer of happiness is also the one to lead him to impending downfall.

Director Paul Andrew Williams toys with expectations as this seemingly conventional thriller blends into an exploration of the occult, the use of non-linear storytelling employed to amplify the suspension of reality. The cinematography tracks Bull as he descends further and further into the chaotic madness of his revenge, the hidden corners becoming more and more labyrinthine as the characters move from shoddy houses to a busy funfair, settling long-due bills under the neon lights of a Ferris wheel.

Despite William’s ambitions, however, Bull falls prey to the very tropes it sets out to debunk, stuck somewhere between The Godfather and Taken while lacking the brilliance of either. The performances, albeit earnest, never fully manage to escape the cartoonish: Hayman is unconvincing as cold-blooded ganglord Norm, while Maskell, despite a few moments of inspiration, is never fully able to grip the torment of his character.

As if to overcompensate for the tepidness of the cast, Williams makes a point of putting his foot on the gas towards the third act, prioritising overexposure over nuance in a final attempt to convince the audience of the dark nature of his protagonist. “You’re not right, Bull. There’s something wrong with you. You’re evil,” we hear time and time again. But saying something over and over doesn't necessarily make it so.

Bull was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It is released in UK cinemas on 5 November.

Where to watch

More Reviews...

God’s Creatures review – murky Irish drama with apocalyptic undertones

Emily Watson and Paul Mescal are mother and son in this strange, almost-thriller about a lie with terrible consequences

Armageddon Time review – James Gray’s latest is an indulgent exercise in self-reflection

Anne Hathaway and Anthony Hopkins star in this languid semi-autobiographical drama about a Jewish family in '80s New York

Corsage review – Vicky Krieps strikes gold as the restless Empress of Austria

The Phantom Thread star delivers a brilliantly mischievous turn in writer-director Marie Kreutzer’s subversive period drama

Emergency review – comedy turns to horror in this “one crazy night” caper

Systemic racism and white entitlement fuel Carey Williams's gripping dramedy about a Black friendship stretched to the limit

Features

5 Must-Watch Features at Queer East Film Festival 2022

As the latest edition of the LGBTQ+ festival returns to London, we highlight our picks for the most essential features...

Avatar’s The Way of Water Trailer Will Actually Make You Excited About Avatar

Thirteen years after James Cameron's revolutionary blockbuster hit cinemas, we finally get a glimpse of its bigger, wetter sequel...

Every Spider-Man Film, Ranked

With Sam Raimi's original game-changing blockbuster turning 20 this week, we take stock of the web-slinger's filmic ventures so far...

Stream With a Theme: The Best Nun Films

As Paul Verhoeven's audacious Benedetta lands in cinemas, Steph Green highlights some worthy features about cinematic Sisters...