Rob Morgan isn’t a name most people know.
He’s a mild mannered actor who often plays stoic and subtle roles and hasn’t really been a leading man.
He’s 70 years old and his first credit in film or TV, according to my quick Web search, was in 2006.
For years, he played roles such as “cab driver” or “guy in the crowd” before becoming somewhat better known for a recurring character on the Netflix series “Daredevil” and the spinoff shows. Still, nobody really knew his name.
He gained more attention playing the father opposite Mary J. Blige in Netflix’s “Mudbound” and playing a death-row inmate in “Just Mercy.” He also appeared in a movie that I loved that not many people saw in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”
Some felt he should have received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for “Just Mercy” and that’s when I started to remember his name.
Morgan now gives the kind of role that should earn him industry-wide acclaim in “Bull,” an indie film about a battered former bull rider who befriends a troubled 14-year-old girl who trashes his home.
Morgan plays Abe, who deals with constant pain from his years as a bull rider. Now he’s more a of wrangler who trains others and he’s reluctant to help Kris, his neighbor who has a mother in prison and is being raised by her grandmother. Kris gets drunk with some friends and rebelliously damages his property and he allows her to help him around the house rather than pressing criminal charges.
At first glance, this appears to be another indie film about a cranky older neighbor helping a troubled youth. They’re both broken and they help each other and become friends. Yada yada yada. It’s been done before. Another “unlikely friendship” movie.
But what makes “Bull” stand out is two things: it’s keen sense of place and a career-defining performance by Morgan.
Director Annie Silverstein, a relative newcomer, spent 10 years as a youth worker before enrolling in film school and it shows in her treatment of Kris in this movie. She gives us a window into the lives of those struggling in America and how mass incarceration (or poor parenting) can affect at-risk youth. She shows us a look at what it’s like to be a fearsome warrior like a bull rider who now is past his prime and doesn’t know what life is worth anymore. She gives us an authentic look at the marginalized in economically-hit Texas and you feel like you’re there. This film has a message on the social-economic dynamics but it doesn’t hit you over the head with it. Instead, it focuses on the compassionate friendship between these two amid a sea of societal apathy.
Of course, none of this would work without Morgan. Amber Havard is satisfactory as Kris, but she’s hardly a star. She’s young so I’m not being critical. She gives a restrained, realistic performance as a troubled youth. Morgan, on the other hand, gives a fantastically nuanced performance that will likely stand out among the best in 2020 for those that see this movie. You feel his pain and his nonverbal acting is palpable. He shows you what’s on his mind without saying a word.
“Bull” is not a perfect movie. It drags at times. Some acting is better than others in this film. It lacks any action or excitement. The story itself has been done before. But for a debut feature, Silverstein has done an impressive job and it does for the world of rodeos what “The Wrestler” did for pro wrestling.
I’d compare “Bull” to two indie movies released in 2017 that were slower paced, character-driven and animal-themed: “Lean on Pete” and “The Rider.” If you loved those movies, give “Bull” a stream.