The problem with Bull is that it does not feel like its own film. Instead, it feels like an off-shot of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. After all, both films star Neil Maskell in the role of a violent hitman and both combine a kitchen sink sensibility with dour slow burn energy.
Kill List succeeds in its compellingly nasty vision; in fact, it’s one of the most visceral British films in recent memory. However, this new film fails to distinguish itself, for it lacks heart and credibility. It’s also blighted by a non-linear narrative that is, to use the characters’ vernacular, rather arse about face.
Neil Maskell plays Bull, a gang enforcer for a pound shop crime family somewhere in the Thames estuary, the armpit of southeast England. Leading this scuzzy outfit is Norm (David Hayman), Bull’s father-in-law. Norm’s past 70, but he’s not lost his energy for cruelty and manipulation.
As Norm and the family are introduced to us, we see a montage of violence that flitters between the past and the present, following Bull as he kills and maims. The non-linear structure obscures the purpose of this bloodletting at first, but a story of betrayal eventually unravels, one that concerns Bull, a burning caravan, and his wife Gemma (Lois Brabin-Platt) and son Aiden (Henri Charles).
Now, there is no doubt that Bull earns its 18 certificate. Grievous bodily harm comes thick, fast and with great variety. Knives are stuck into mouths and kneecaps. Amputations are cauterised with gas stoves. People are blown away with a sawn-off shotgun. Yet little of this brutality rings true, and that’s a problem in a film that meditates on vengeance and violence.
Take the moment in which Bull removes the fingers of some poor butcher whom Norm is shaking down. Bull takes a carving knife and slams it down just above the knuckles, cutting the fingers clean off and leaving a puddle of dark, syrupy blood. This just isn’t credible. Such an injury would require the weight and width of a meat cleaver, not a carving knife, which would only slice flesh in such an action. The effect is all a bit Smiffys.
Then there’s the amputation and the gas stove – it’s ridiculous. I don’t buy it. But what I buy even less is that sawed off shotgun, which looks and sounds like a pyrotechnic prop. One doesn’t have to think hard to remember what happens in Kill List, especially that mind-searingly brutal hammer scene, which is about as transgressive as anything from Gaspar Noe.
Unlike Bull, Kill List also has heart and character. Wheatley depicts the volcanic dysfunction between the lead couple’s relationship, making an impression of domestic hell in just minutes of screen time. Equally important is Gal (Michael Smiley), whose casual Irish charm brings respite and camaraderie to an otherwise sinister and oppressive experience. Bull has well-cast actors and natural performances, but it enjoys no such depth. There’s little connection among this unlikeable riff raff. Ultimately, Bull is a flatly nasty experience much like Paul Andrew Williams’ first film, London to Brighton, that exercise in grimesploitation.