Bull (Photo: Bert Marcus Film)
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Annie Silverstein
STARS Rob Morgan, Amber Havard
It sounds like the sort of general outline that could power five seasons of a highly rated yet utterly imbecilic sitcom. After trashing a residential house alongside her friends, a 14-year-old girl is forced to make amends by performing chores for its owner, an aging bull rider so far down the ladder that he occasionally has to dress up as a clown for the amusement of the rodeo crowds. But through tears and (canned studio) laughter, the unlikely pair forge a strong bond while also taking time out for cloying sentimentality and wretched double entendres (“Oh, when you mentioned mounting someone, you meant the bull!”). Say, isn’t it time for Charlie Sheen to get back on prime-time television?
Thankfully, this premise didn’t get wasted on a CBS executive. Instead, it’s the brainchild of writer-director Annie Silverstein, making her feature film debut with Bull after a decade-plus of working on short films and documentaries. Admittedly, movies about odd couples have been playing theaters even before the heyday of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and Bull could even be accused of remaining too conventional with its narrative choices. Yet what marks the picture as unique is its raw and unforced nature, more slice-of-life than sleight-of-cinema. Each scene flows naturally into the next, and Silverstein, co-scripting with Johnny McAllister, doesn’t make any sudden moves by introducing unconvincing artifice.
As befits her central characters, Silverstein cast accordingly, picking veteran Rob Morgan (Officer Powell on Stranger Things, the Jackson family patriarch in Mudbound) to portray the seasoned bull rider Abe Turner and newcomer Amber Havard to play the inexperienced teenager Kris. Although both live in the same neighborhood in an impoverished part of Houston, each might as well be existing in a different universe. Rob is a former bull rider who’s now been relegated to performing less exciting though equally difficult functions on the rodeo circuit; he can’t get through a day without pain pills, but he also knows there’s nothing else out there for him outside of this lifestyle.
Meanwhile, Kris and her younger sister live with their grandmother, since their mother is presently serving a jail sentence. A bored teen who seems destined to follow in her mom’s incarcerated footsteps, Kris appears to get a head start on that path when, knowing that Rob will be out of town and knowing he has a cabinet full of liquor, she invites her ne’er-do-well friends to break into his home. Rob catches her the next morning on his now-wrecked property, but rather than have her sent to jail, he decides to let her work off the debt. For her part, Kris prefers the alternative, asking a police officer, “Can’t you just take me to juvie?”
This is a bleak world, to be sure, and Silverstein doesn’t shy away from its ugliness. A couple of white characters use the N-word when talking about Rob, and Amber’s future prospects seem to be limited to selling drugs for local sleazebags or performing tricks in various yahoos’ pickup trucks. So it’s hardly a surprise that she reacts positively when Rob allows her to tag along on his rodeo excursions. This is a new and exciting world for her, and she instantly dreams of becoming a professional bull rider. But given her lot in life, this ambition seems more likely to morph into one of Langston Hughes’ dreams deferred than blossom into an uplifting Rocky underdog tale.
Although it meanders in spots — the scenes involving Rob’s old flame (Yolanda Ross) are curiously flat and could have been excised without losing anything of real import — Bull generally captivates with a number of indelibly realized sequences. The bits between Kris and her jailbird mom are particularly sharp, including a heartbreaker of a moment when daughter accuses mother of wanting to remain behind bars so she won’t have to spend time with her. And while the milieu of Bull seems insular and shut off from the rest of the nation, there’s a striking shot when an angry Rob grabs Kris by the arm and immediately lets go when a car whizzes by, remembering his precarious standing as a black man in present-day Amerikkka.
To say that Bull is a movie bereft of hope would be inaccurate. It’s certainly there, but it does require some coaxing to come out.
(Bull is presently being screened at the Cannes Film Festival, where it’s competing in the Golden Camera and Un Certain Regard categories. A stateside release date has not yet been set.)