BULL (2020)

April 30, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. A film focusing on an unlikely intersecting of cross-generational dead-end lives in a mostly ignored poverty-stricken area on the outskirts of Houston may not seem like much of a pick-me-up during these challenging times. And while it’s not a crowd-pleaser, it is pleasing in a high quality independent filmmaking kind of way – especially to those of us who thrive on such projects. Writer-director Annie Silverstein’s first feature film was co-written with Johnny McAllister and Josh Melrod, and it never tries to impress with any cleverness or trickery, and instead allows us to wallow in the harshness of a world that has its inhabitants grasping for hope.

We first see 14 year old Krystal (Kris) and her little sister messing with a chicken that’s been killed by their pet pit bull in their backyard. The chicken belongs to their African American neighbor Abe, who threatens to shoot the dog if it comes in his yard again. Kris spends an inordinate amount of time taking care of her little sister. They live with their constantly annoyed grandmother while their mom is incarcerated. Jailhouse visits begin with hugs, and end with frustration. Kris seizes on an opportunity while neighbor Abe is gone for a weekend rodeo. She invites her friends over and they raid Abe’s liquor and pain pills, and trash his house. The kids all have fun, but Abe is understandably upset when he returns home.

In a show of mercy towards Kris’ grandmother, Abe agrees to allow Kris to clean up the party mess rather than be arrested and shipped to juvenile detention. Slowly, very slowly, Abe and Kris begin to bond. She is fascinated by middle-aged Abe’s history. He was once a bull rider, and now he’s a bull fighter – one of the guys in the arena who distracts the bulls so the riders can escape safely after their ride. His body and spirit are broken, and he’s constantly in pain and sore. Kris, a sullen teenager, carries her own pain. Her situation is such that we (and Abe) find it difficult, if not meaningless, to judge her. She desperately wants to be loved and cared for, but finds none of that through her family or “friends.”

Rob Morgan, who was so memorable in MUDBOUND (2017), plays Abe, a man who fights to maintain his dignity in a profession more conducive to younger folks, and with a body that continues to fail a bit more with each gore. He has some type of relationship with his ex, Sheila (Yolanda Ross), but mostly he’s alone and quiet until he’s around his fellow rodeo performers. Newcomer Amber Havard plays Kris, and captures the confusion and hurt with subtle facial movements of an actress far more experienced. The moment her mother (Peggy Schott) lets her down yet again is gut-wrenching, and we feel Kris’ pain every bit as much as we feel Abe’s pain at the tip of a bull horn.

Ms. Silverstein’s film is surely to draw comparisons to the excellent THE RIDER (2017), with its understated approach, and power in the quietness and stillness. It touches on African American rodeos, and provides a contrast with ‘white’ rodeos, while also showing us the sex and drug issues facing young Kris. With its multi-generational view of life, we see a girl desperate for a role model, and a man coming to terms with loneliness. Kris and Abe prove quite the odd couple as she finds a glimmer of hope in her desire to become a bull rider, and Abe finds a companion and reason to carry on. The two fine performances help us deal with the often bleak daily lives of Kris and Abe, and Ms. Silverstein directs her film in such a visceral way that, as viewers, we are appreciative when the cloud lifts just a bit.

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November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Jim Crow South and WWII have each spawned many movies, and both play a crucial role in director Dee Rees’ (BESSIE) adaptation (co-written with Virgil Williams) of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel. It’s the story of two families, the Jacksons and the McAllans, striving for daily survival in rural Mississippi during the 1940’s.

The Jacksons are a black family tenant-farming on land owned by the white McAllans who transplanted from Memphis. This land is so remote and life here so hard, that tractors are almost non-existent and mules are rare enough. There is such bleakness to this existence that all seem oblivious to the ever-present mudhole leading to the front door of their shack. Rare elation comes in the form of a privacy wall constructed around the outdoor family shower, or the sweetness of a bar of chocolate. Soon after D-Day, Florence and Hap Jackson send their son Ronsel off to war. The same thing is happening across the 200 acre farm to Jamie McAllan, younger brother of Henry and son of Pappy.

A shifting of multiple narrators throughout allows us access to the perspectives of the key characters. We get both black and white views on war and farming. Their co-dependence on each other would never be admitted by either the Jacksons or McAllans. Days in war bring injury, death and dirt … not so dissimilar to life on a Mississippi farm. When Ronsel and Jamie return from war, they are both suffering. Ronsel can’t come to grips with how he was treated as a redeemer in Europe, but just another ‘black man’ being targeted by the KKK at home; while Jamie is shell-shocked into alcoholism and an inability to function in society. The parallels between the war experience of Ronsel and Jamie lead them to a friendship that ultimately can’t be good for either.

Jason Clarke plays Henry and Carey Mulligan, his wife Laura. Jonathan Banks (“Breaking Bad”, “Better Call Saul”) is the ultimate nasty racist Pappy, while Garrett Hedlund is Jamie. Rob Morgan and Mary J Blige are Hap and Florence Jackson, and Jason Mitchell (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON) is Ronsel. While all perform well, it’s Mitchell and Hedlund who are particular standouts, as is a radio reference of the great Lou Boudreau. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is terrific and captures both the hardscrabble life of Mississippi, but also the frantic and tragic abruptness of war (in just a couple of scenes).

Racism is always difficult to watch, and in that era, everyone had their place/plight in life. It was a structure built to ensure misery for most, and one guaranteed to collapse. The acting here is very strong and the film is well made. The story-telling is consistently disquieting and periodically unbearable. Still, we are all tired (or should be) of hatred. The somewhat hopeful ending caused an audible sigh of relief from an audience of viewers who had been angry and clinched for more than two hours. And though there is no joy in Mudville, we remain hopeful, even today.

watch the trailer: