There are some actors I will watch in just about anything they do. Rob Morgan is one of them. He’s a natural performer known for the raw humanity and absolute truth he brings to every supporting character he plays. The 53-year-old North Carolina native is finally given a meaty leading role in Annie Silverstein’s new indie drama “Bull”. As expected, Morgan delivers on every level, burrowing deep into his character to give us something profoundly authentic.
After seeing the trailer for “Bull” you may be tempted to dismiss the film as a soft, predictable heartwarmer. Don’t be fooled. There is nothing soft about the approach Silverstein (who directed and co-wrote) takes in telling the story of 14-year-old Kris (Amber Havard) and her search for stability – any kind of stability. She thinks she finds it in the most unexpected of places – a broken down former bull rider named Abe (Morgan).
Kris’ world is relentless bleak. She and her little sister live with their grandmother because their mother is in prison. There’s no mention of their dad but the assumption is he’s a deadbeat and nowhere to be found. Frustrated and lashing out, Kris breaks into Abe’s house while he’s off working a rodeo in San Antonio. After finding his liquor cabinet, Kris calls over a group of bad seeds she’s been trying to impress. They lap up all the booze and trash the house. Of course when Abe comes home it’s Kris who gets caught and made to pay the price.
Instead of pressing charges Abe is persuaded to let Kris work off her sentence. But this doesn’t suddenly become some cute and bubbly buddy story. Abe is hard on Kris, bitter about what she did to his place, but far more bitter about his life itself. His bull riding days are long gone and now he scrapes by as a rodeo clown at small town venues. He pops pain pills just to be able to work but even those opportunities are drying up for him. Abe is a tragic figure – alone, dispirited and rudderless.
“Bull” is in large part about the intersection of two distinctly different communities through two lost souls who are very much victims of circumstance. While their choices have brought them to their own individual crossroads, the heartbreaking reality is they are both trapped within a harsh poverty-stricken rural setting with no visible way out. Silverstein pulls from her experiences as a social worker and sets us down in a world that will be as foreign to some as a far off ancient land. It’s visceral, cruel, and unforgiving.
While the movie does a good job fleshing out Kris, it’s not quite as thorough when it comes to Abe. I wanted to know more about him, especially his past. We learn a little from Abe himself, but then we get things like an utterly pointless love scene with a woman from his past (played by Yolonda Ross). She seems to be there for that scene alone and then she’s dismissed as quickly as she was introduced. It feels like there is some interesting story there but it’s left unexplored.
Apart from the superb Rob Morgan, “Bull” fills a lot of roles with first-time actors. Havard’s debut takes some getting used to, but ultimately her sad, low-key performance feels just right. Some of the other non-professionals have a rougher go. The great French filmmaker Robert Bresson preferred to work with no-professional actors, calling them his “models”. He demanded that their performances be free of any theatrics or dramatic expression. But where Bresson insisted on a blank canvas, here you can’t help but notice the non-professionals really working. They do their best, but some of them have a hard time selling their lines. It can be a distraction.
None of that takes away from the potency of this slice-of-life drama about finding your place in the world regardless of your circumstances and the human bonds that help you get there. Annie Silverstein’s passion for the material is seen in every detail and the dense, textured setting is brought to light in striking reality. You won’t find any sugarcoating in “Bull”. It’s all about real-life complexity and struggle and the movie cuts no corners in depicting it.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS