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The Cathartic Nature of the Rodeo is Unveiled in ‘Bull’ – Review

Annie Silverstein’s Bull may be one of the most cathartic watches of 2020. The film has finally reached a wide release through the festival circuit, originally premiering at Cannes last year. Silverstein’s feature debut is an ode to the beating heart of South Texas. Not the highly privileged, but the marginalized that cling on to a subculture that many would argue is fading away. Rodeos and bull riding may seem like a dying American pass time, but many still operate and find success to this day. Bull removes the veil on this niche world, showcasing the highs and lows of the extreme sport that is riding a furious thousand-pound animal. People do not purely choose to ride bulls for glory, but for the therapeutic cleanse of raw emotion.

Abe (Rob Morgan) and Kris (Amber Havard) make the most unlikely duo. Abe is an aging bull rider who is all but hanging on to the sport. Riding bulls, taming them, and surrounding himself with the faithful rodeo community is all that he has ever known. His fourteen-year-old delinquent neighbor Kris, is merely a young girl following the footsteps of her incarcerated mother. The two may be of different race and creed, but they ultimately share the same marginalized Texan community. Kris’ misguided, lawless nature leads her into debt with Abe. Through their mutual unexplainable draw to bull riding, the two soon uncover the best of themselves within one another. Although, the systematic and cultural path set forward by them leaves little to no room for error.

Silverstein takes the most pragmatic approach in uncovering the rodeo psyche. Her framing and style make the screen feel like a transparent portal. The lively rodeo communities are captured in their purest form, feeling no more human than what the viewer would see in their neighborhood. This admirable honesty is matched with the tangible intensity of bull riding. The visuals, unperceivable and sensational, just like it would be from the perspective of those close to a bull. Not too dissimilar from a documentary, but still cinematic enough to get utterly lost in.

These choices complement Silverstein and Johnny McAllister’s script. Many will instantly link this to Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, and for good reason. Both films share enough similarity being brutally honest dives into “misunderstood” sports. Both also revel in capturing the real humanity behind popular American subcultures. However, Bull’s unlikely leads, and the marginalized communities they represent, serve as a unique platform. Their narratives shed light on the miscategorized and stereotyped. The thrills of the rodeo can serve as escapism for the less fortunate, much in the same way that people watch movies to distance from harsh realities. Silverstein pulls the rug from under the viewer, revealing that getting the chance to escape can be a privilege itself.

Amber Havard and Rob Morgan in Bull (Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Morgan and Harvard are phenomenal together. Morgan, known for his reoccurring roles in Netflix’s Marvel shows and Stranger Things, exhibits that he is an acting force in need of more leading roles. Meanwhile, Harvard makes her feature debut as an actress. She holds her own against Morgan, leaving a personal stamp on the film’s image in the process.  The two bring great sincerity, giving endearment to the required realism of the script. Thanks to Morgan and Harvard, the potency of Bull is as strong as it can be.

Though the deeply grounded approach may be too dire for some. This would not be so much an issue if the film’s closing moments brought slightly more resolution. Silverstein’s commitment to a realistic lens, without an ounce of sugarcoating to be found, is commendable though. Bull sticks to its guns, even when caught between the eyes of danger. The film brilliantly chooses to have one moment breaking from reality towards the end, leaving room to savor indescribable, but all too real emotion. Yet, this still cannot stop the closing moments from feeling too abrupt.

The nature of bull riding and rodeos have also been subject to immense criticism lately. The unjust treatment of animals, tragically, is seen as just in many fields. With all that it was already juggling, Bull did not need to have this topic high on the agenda. It would have been greatly appreciated on behalf of both the viewer and the film’s realistic approach to at least give time to the matter. Especially since so many animals are used on screen.

A triumph regardless, Bull will surely find its place appreciated as a modern gem. Abe in the film grows a knack for calling Kris “flea”, not just because of her height and age – no matter how many times he flicks her away, she comes back stronger. Quite symbolic for a film highlighting a subculture that has tried the test of time despite all odds. Also genuine in representing the less represented, the true underbelly of South Texas culture. If not for them, a piece of the community can be lost for good. Bull cathartically aims to keep that far from happening.

Bull is now available on VOD.

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