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