Cinema Review: Bull | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, July 12th, 2020  

Bull

Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Annie Silverstein

Apr 29, 2020 Web Exclusive
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With American cinema often divided between busy, urban environments or quiet rural landscapes, a growing number of films are focussing on those places in-between. Communities not cut off from the modern world, but often a stones-throw away from both cars and traffic and swamps and dusty plains.

Annie Silverstein’s Bull takes place here, where poor white Texas teenager Kris seems destined to follow in the footsteps of her prison-bound mother, until she trashes the neighbouring house throwing a party for her equally bored friends belonging to ageing black rodeo rider Abe. Though Kris seems resigned to a life laid out for her, “just take me to juvie”, Abe sympathises and asks Kris to work off her ‘debt’ instead.

There’s a quiet, tactile dignity to the physical work, as Kris sweats and toils in Abe’s backyard, and Abe works the rodeo, where bulls kick up dust and fling themselves for a ferocious few seconds before being calmed and led away. Silverstein’s direction beautifully captures this with soft and textured camerawork. Unlike the titular animal, it’s subtle and gentle. And when Abe gets hurt, there’s no melodrama. The pain seems to have always been there, a body broken over time. We feel it because we feel the film.

He’s keen to carry on though, but is ultimately kept away from the lucrative rodeo shows, forced to work the more modest black rodeo circuit for spare parts and change. Even in this in-between world, the segregation that permeates the USA remains intact…

unspoken…

just there. 

Kris though begins to show an interest in this previously unseen world of home-cooking and touring shows and the supportive community that fills it. But as their quiet friendship begins to blossom, it’s clear that there are threats lingering in the air. 

For Kris it’s the lack of, not just opportunities, but of anything to do at all - drugs, sex and crime prove to be tempting distractions. For Abe, the lure of addiction is there too, as Silverstein hints at middle-America’s Opioid crisis and the pain-relieving drugs that can so easily be misused. If there’s one thing Silverstein does beautifully, it’s the glimpses we get of these deep-rooted issues - that nudge and needle at the lives of our protagonists and the people around them – but never fully come into view.

This is perhaps because we see most of the story through Kris’s eyes. She doesn’t quite grasp everything yet, but the view is becoming clearer. She sees the young boys around her, but perhaps doesn’t quite know what those feelings are. At 14 she is on the cusp of so many things.

In a way it is a coming-of-age tale refreshed by Kris’s ability to grow and mature beyond those around her. As her grandmother struggles to cope, Kris takes on an instinctually mother-like role to her younger sister, reminiscent of the children’s camaraderie we see in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, where an absence of grown-ups with responsibility sees children become their own guardians, setting their own rules, and pushing the boundaries as they band together.

With this growth and maturity comes opportunity by way of the bull. But what the bull and the bullring represent is something that fluctuates; for Kris an escape, a symbol of fertility, a powerful and brutal creature, “the only place where you could see life and death” (Hemingway). For a good bull-rider they must go to the brink of death for every performance. But they do come back.

Life on this knife-edge can be both exhilarating and exhausting. It’s something that those on the fringes know only too well. It’s a commonality that can unite an ageing bull-rider and struggling teenager for brief and beautiful unspoken moments. For all the ferocity of Bull, it’s in the moments of quietude where the real power lies.

Author rating: 7.5/10

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