Neil Maskell has been acting for a long time, but the weathered Brit will probably always be best known for his harrowing performance in Kill List. Maskell’s latest starring role, in Bull, appears to be aimed at people who thought Ben Wheatley’s cult film was a bit too soft and sensitive. As the titular ruthless criminal enforcer, Maskell dispenses violent justice as easily as most people butter toast. He carries out murders like menial tasks, picking people off as though he’s wandering around Tesco, slowly working through his shopping list. Bull is by no means an easy watch, but it undoubtedly leaves a mark.
Maskell’s face is the first thing we see onscreen – that sweet, unassuming, hangdog look twisted into something terrible (the actor’s IMDb profiler is him smiling gaily, possibly in an effort to counteract the effect of his most famous onscreen persona). The new offering from writer-director Paul Andrew Williams, who helmed several episodes of Broadchurch and A Confession alongside a variety of pitch-black crime thrillers, wastes no time setting things up. The violence is vicious, grisly, nasty, and to the point. Bull kills with efficiency and doesn’t discriminate, dispatching a female bystander early on in gruesome fashion.
However, this is a British crime story through and through. There’s nothing glamorous or aspirational about Bull’s life. He sits alone in a rundown hotel room, necking cheap booze, and presents as neither fit, healthy nor happy. Ugliness seeps out of every pore in this picture; everything about this world feels unavoidably unsafe and the cinematography, by Ben Chads and Vanessa Whyte, captures the very specific grayness of English suburbia. The terraced houses are both unassuming and rotting with decay. Characters have clandestine conversations, telling each other things like, “You don’t need to be doing something wrong to need protecting,” while sipping too-milky tea in bad office lighting.
This is a decidedly lower-class story of small-scale criminals and bad decisions, Raffertie’s propulsive score ensuring we never get comfortable watching Bull dispense his horrible justice (early on, he tells a victim “You have no idea” what he’s truly capable of). Bull’s final boss, in every sense of the word, is Norm (played by the legendary David Hayman), his former father-in-law who also happens to be a local crime lord. Norm can turn on the charm at a moment’s notice, but he’s also a sadist willing to torture an old woman for information he knows she doesn’t have in the first place. It’s clear Norm never approved of Bull marrying his beloved daughter, despite the fact she’s no picnic herself, and his disapproval plays out in the physically uncomfortable flashback sequences set at a family barbecue and while Norm and his boys are intimidating a local business owner (where Bull notably shows some violent flair).
Maskell’s performance is truly astounding. He inhabits the role of Bull to an increasingly disconcerting extent, communicating a lifetime of hurt and anger even while torturing and killing people. Although he’s no hero, it’s clear Bull is the best parent among this hideous group, and his desire to get back to his son provides the only real lightness in this resoundingly dark tale of vengeance gone wrong. The ending of Bull is strangely cathartic, even though there’s really only one way the story can go, but the film has a real sting in its tail too. Although the mileage of the big reveal will vary depending on your personal beliefs, there’s no denying it’s a big surprise that makes a certain amount of sense given what’s come before. Still, with how stubbornly realistic everything else is, it rings slightly false.
Thankfully, there’s a whole bunch of terrific stuff before that, with the film’s standout moments happening at a funfair that’ll ensure you never look at them the same way again. Maskell appears threatening even while driving a bumper car around, while a bloody set piece set aboard the Waltzers attraction is an all-timer, from how it’s shot to the diegetic music and Bull’s increasingly maniacal laughter. Bull begins as a kind of standard issue revenge thriller but soon morphs into something significantly more deviant, darker and thought-provoking. At the center of it all is Maskell’s assured performance, which in less capable hands could have read as one-note. The gifted performer imbues Bull with a raw, tangible desire to do right by his son, whether he’s carefully blow-drying his hair or tussling with a drug dealer to figure out what the hell happened to him and, more importantly, who’s to blame.
Bull is relentlessly intense, unflinchingly gory and the color palette is so grey it might as well be in monochrome – of course, then the blood splatters wouldn’t be as effective – but Maskell’s performance sells every horrible moment. The movie is worth watching for him alone, but there is some respite from the darkness if you make it through to the startling final moments. Whether you consider it a happy ending, however, will depend entirely on your perspective.
Catch Bull in theaters, On Demand and on Digital now
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Paul Andrew Williams
Writer(s): Paul Andrew Williams
Stars: Neil Maskell, David Hayman, Tamzin Outhwaite
Release date: April 1, 2022 (theaters) April 5, 2022 (On Demand, Digital)
Run Time: 88 minutes