Bull first look: a bucking portrait of a rodeoing odd couple

Cannes Cinéfondation winner Annie Silvestein steps up to the Un Certain Regard showcase with her feature debut Bull, an understated but potent portrait of Amber Havard’s teen tearaway and Rob Morgan’s worn rodeo star on the outer fringes of Houston, Texas.

Rebecca Harrison
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Amber Havard as Kris and Rob Morgan as Abe in Bull

Amber Havard as Kris and Rob Morgan as Abe in Bull

Bulls buck and twist as they explode from cages. Prison walls close in tighter and tighter on women convicts. Roller rinks entrap little girls who cannot find their way out. Everyone and everything in writer-director Annie Silverstein’s debut feature Bull seem to be moving in circles that spiral downward in a tale of social inequality and the bloody-mindedness shared by youth and older age.

Yet somehow, amid the poverty-stricken ‘rurban’ environment of backyard Houston, Bull offers the possibility of an alternate ending for white teenager Kris (Amber Havard) and ageing black rodeo star Abe Turner (Rob Morgan). When Kris trashes neighbour Abe’s house in an act of wilful teenage disobedience, the pair embark on a near-silent friendship that teaches both unexpected lessons about their need for human companionship in an animalistic world.

From the opening image of Abe’s dead chicken – killed by Kris’s dog – to the final lingering gaze at the two protagonists, Silverstein’s film is a masterclass in understated direction. Every shot is meaningful and precise; every line of dialogue speaks words left unsaid. Even when dealing with the prison system (Kris’s almost-absent mother is doing time) and drug use (taking in the US healthcare crisis and the ubiquity of illegal trade), Silverstein keeps Abe and Kris’s story in extreme close up and the film’s implicit politics take a supporting role.

Havard as Kris

Havard as Kris

Further testament to the superb direction of Silverstein [who won Cannes’s Cinéfondation prize in 2014 for her short Skunk ] is the subtle quality of performance she elicits from Morgan and Havard. Both performances are perfectly balanced and finely tuned – but, like the rodeo bulls, the characters are always on the brink of sudden, if not unexpected, violence.

As Abe, Morgan conveys a thousand feelings even in moments of stillness. When he chases Kris and she yells at him to let her go, it takes just a single look toward the road for Morgan to communicate Abe’s fear of police intervention and the precarity of his black body in white America. When Kris tells him that she wants to ride the rodeo, an almost imperceptible grunt expresses his simultaneous dismissal of, and acquiescence to, her plans. Similarly, Havard, in her onscreen debut, is astonishingly good as the sullen and reckless teenager who learns hard lessons about empathy, responsibility and her own power.

Throughout the film, soft focus blurs the edges of an environment mostly seen through Kris’s eyes. However, this is not our world and we inhabit the space like summer flies sticking to the walls. Never invited into the action, the camera aims its insistently close-up gaze through the gates of the bullpen; when Kris cries her hand hides her tears. But there is little point in crying – or speaking, for that matter. There is a natural order to things that no one attempts to fight so much as tame in their quest for survival.

Bull (2019)

Of course, just when survival looks a little more certain, things begin to fall apart. As summer comes, the promise of emancipation for Kris and her mother is broken and Abe’s injuries make his rodeo career ever more fragile. The influence of older men, drugs and unwelcome sexual encounters also threaten to send Kris spiralling into an abyss from which the teenager can’t climb back. Everything thickens and swells in a heat that brings slicks of sweat to brows, necks and upper lips. The minimalist soundtrack of the incessant insect chorus becomes a symphony of toads and animal screeches as both Abe and Kris exhibit ever-wilder behaviour.

But where other films might allow these two characters to descend into darkness, Silverstein’s story offers salvation. In biblical scenes alive with magical realism, bulls are tamed and people are touched by empathy and forgiveness. Spiralling paths halted in their tracks, the bullfighter and the wayward teenage girl come full circle and find the possibility of redemption in their mutual understanding – finding light, after all, in the dark Texan night. Bull, then, is a mesmerising film, and one that will linger in the imagination long after the sounds of the crickets have faded.

 

Annie Silverstein talks Putting Life Experiences into Film with the Sundance Institute

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