SXSW 2020: Bull (2020) - Reviewed

The weight of poverty and the ways in which it holds people down can bring an acceptance to circumstances that's just soul crushing. In accepting quietly horrific circumstances, you can find solace in the unlikeliest of places. Such is the case in Annie Silverstein's debut feature Bull, wherein a young, troubled girl befriends an aging bull fighter. In what sounds like a predictably rote story, Silverstein manages to find the remarkable by keeping it unremarkable.

Kris (newcomer Amber Harvard) is a 14 year old girl essentially taking care of herself and her sister. Her mother is in prison and her grandmother is chronically ill and barely able to get out of bed most days. One night, after breaking into her neighbor Abe' (Rob Morgan) house while he's working at the rodeo, she's arrested. In one of the film's more devastating moments, she asks the officer to just take her to juvie, her expectations already so low that she sees that as an improvement. Instead, in lieu of pressing charges, her neighbor decides to make her work for him. As happens in most films like this, a bond is formed between two very different but similarly broken people.

Reminiscent of ChloƩ Zhao's modern masterpiece, The Rider which also follows a broken rodeo star, Silverstein takes a more raw and realistic approach to telling her story. Unlike Zhao, Silverstein's mode of storytelling is from an even further remove. While the balance between reaching the emotional endgame she's asking of her audience and the distance in which she's telling her story isn't always reached, she still pulls off something quite profound. Zhao chose to tell her story through the lens of some pretty remarkable cinematography, portraying the American west as a lush, almost otherworldly landscape. The despair and failure were always being met with an undercurrent of "there's something more out there." Silverstein tells her's with more muted images and in turn, it meets the resignation these people feel and ends up hitting a silent but effective punch.

Resignation runs through the film but it's not full of the despair that you'd expect, in fact there's a hopefulness by the final frame that betrays everything we've seen. This isn't so much a film about a resigning yourself into your misery rather a resignation that this is the hand you've been dealt and how to make the best of it. We see it in how Abe continues to push himself as a bullfighter despite his increasingly debilitating injuries. We see it in how Kris quietly accepts everything she's dealt. Drugs, shitty boys, her mother's spiral, none of these are met with the third act blow up you'd expect. Harvard underplays all of it and reads as a more honest portrayal of a kid knowing nothing else. The fact that she's never acted before isn't lost on the performance but in fact enhances its authenticity. 

The best decision Silverstein makes is centering the film on the black rodeo scene in Houston and specifically on the great Rob Morgan. Morgan holds the entirety of the film together, without him this is just another ordinary indie. He's transcendent and continues to be maybe our most unsung actor. He's usually used as a smaller ingredient to spice up a show or movie, particularly as Turk in the Marvel Netflix Universe. But here, he's the co-lead and he's magnificent. Especially in helping to elevate a newcomer's performance. Harvard is good on her own but she's great with Morgan. 

As Abe he has a pathos to him that you can't teach. From the minute he appears on screen, the film just has a weight added it to it. What he accomplishes only using his eyes is astonishing. They're eyes that contain decades of pain that he keeps bottled up. But because he's so great, that pain and rage is always bubbling right at the surface. In his community he was a star, maybe the best bullfighter in the game. But elsewhere, he's just another guy and to see him carry that is harrowing. We've never seen a man or a subculture like this before.

In fact, that's also where Silverstein unfortunately falters. She does a terrific job of fleshing Kris and Abe out into more than their stereotypes within this kind of story, but she lets the rest of it slip. Every supporting player feels too superfluous and almost and interchangeable. The story beats progress about as predictably and cliche-ridden as one would expect. Perhaps worst of all, she introduces us to a community almost never depicted on film and does basically nothing with it. Black cowboys and rodeo stars are a subculture that I don't think I've ever heard about. Making one of your co-leads a part of that community is only half the battle and she doesn't do the work to examine any of it. There's an understanding that this is explicitly a story about two hardened, battered people coming together to find kinship but to put such a rich and unexplored setting on film and then just not use it? It's a real missed opportunity.

It's a testament to Rob Morgan's year-best performance and a stellar debut from Amber Harvard that this elevates itself just above ordinary. It's the kind of indie that you've seen plenty of coming out festivals like Sundance but one that's absolutely saved by its strong leads and a vision from a filmmaker yet to find her voice, at least not entirely. She has a real eye for the power that can be achieved in silence and the ability to never take the obvious direction when it matters most. Bull might not come together as a great whole but its parts are more than worthy and deserving of your time. 

-Brandon Streussnig