There are the screen actors that most folks have recognized, and deservedly canonized, as the profession’s top-tier — your Streeps and De Niros, your Brandos and Blanchetts, your Hoffmans (both Dustin and Philip Seymour). And then there are the great actors who toil away from the brighter spotlights but still turn in consistently, reliably amazing work. You don’t see their names on marquees, and it might take you a second to place where you’ve caught them before. But the more you watch them do what they do, the more confirmation you get that these performers are plying their craft with skill, versatility and humanity at the highest level. That’s the group that Rob Morgan belongs to. Mention him to people and you may be greeted with a blank stare, at least until you bring up the father in Mudbound, or the death-row prisoner in Just Mercy, or the former Buffalo Soldier turned farmer in the TV miniseries Godless. Then the eyes widen, the head nods and it’s: Oh my god, that guy.
In a perfect world, Bull — director Annie Silverstein’s tale of an unlikely bond between a broken-down bull rider and the at-risk teen girl — would bring Morgan the sort of bigger-picture attention he deserves. It’s not a showy performance, because his character, Abe Turner, isn’t really a showy guy. But the lack of grandstanding, and the way he shows you what’s going on without breaking his mask of stoicism and stifled pain, that just makes what he’s doing that much more impressive. Once a legend on the PBR (Professional Bull Riders) circuit, Turner is now one step above a rodeo clown, distracting those bucking beasts after a rider has been thrown. He’s resigned to working for change in smaller venues in San Antonio and amateur events all around Southeastern Texas. The cowboy walks slowly and gingerly, his body battered from years of getting thrown and stomped. If it weren’t for the booze and pills, he’d barely be able to get out of bed.
Still, Turner gets out there when the gig calls for it, suffering in silence for the paycheck and the chance to keep being part of the show. The rodeo is in his blood. He’s out of town on a job, in fact, when Kris (newcomer Amber Havard) breaks into his house. A 14-year-old girl who lives with her grandmother and younger sister — Mom is currently incarcerated for drug-related charges — down the street from Turner, she’s only interacted with the older man when he’s yelled at her about her dog getting into his chicken coop. On a whim, Kris lets herself into his place and, along with a bunch of other rowdy teens, trashes the place. When Turner returns the next day, he’s furious. The cops get called. Rather then press charges, he’s willing to let Kris work it off by fixing up his place. “Can’t you just take me to juvie?” she asks.
From there, Bull lets you observe how these two very different, but equally adrift souls slowly grow accustomed to each other, as well as finding a common ground. Kris, it seems, is starting to take an interest in bullriding the more she’s forced to tag along to backyard rodeos and BBQ pits that double as training grounds. She may even have a knack for it. He may have found someone to mentor. And while Silverstein and her husband/cowriter Johnny McAllister wrap a number of intertwining story strands around the narrative, from Turner’s ex-flame (Yolanda Ross) briefly re-entering the picture to Kris being drawn into the web of the neighborhood sleaze-bucket drug dealer (Steven Boyd), they keep circling back to the central duo. The movie is only really alive when they’re together — a youngster in need of a father figure and a man in need of being reminded that he’s more than the sum of his demons.
It helps that Morgan has a hell of a partner in crime in Havard, a nonprofessional who was scouted at a mall — her awkwardness and sense of being pushed out of a comfort zone completely fits the role, she’s a great listener, and the rapport between her and the veteran performer feels spot-on. And that Silverstein, who’s spent years teaching teens about empowering themselves through filmmaking, is a director with an eye for detail and a documentarian’s sense of capturing environments. There’s a real sense of place and community that comes across in Bull, from the suburbs on the outskirts of Houston to the bullriding circuit in deeply rural areas. If the movie occasionally falters when the focus favors Kris at times (those scenes remind you that the project began as a feature-length take on her award-winning 2014 short Skunk, about a girl and her dog), it definitely makes you feel like you’re observing a world that Silverstein had actually spent time getting to know firsthand.
The reason you need to see Bull, however, and we do not use that verb lightly, is Morgan. The calm, concentrated, understated manner in which he presents this man, who’d rather have a battered body than a bruised pride, is something to behold. Even when Turner begins to slowly accept this young woman being around, the actor never never sands the edges off his cantankerousness or his sense of caution. He gives you the toll that so much physical pain has taken on the rider, and the crushed ego that happens when his last shred of professional dignity is compromised. The drunken embarrassment that follows his being downgraded at a show is hard to watch, only to then lead to what might be the film’s most transcendental exchange: a slurred demonstration of how to calm a bull. It almost feels like a throwaway moment, until the movie gives it weight down the road. But Morgan is the one that gives it meaning, along with so many other gestures and line readings that barely rise above a growl. He doesn’t have to go big with Turner. Not when he can show someone slowly dying by a thousand tiny cuts and then have Turner finally realize he’s worth healing.