The Jack Bull (1999)

Directed by John Badham

“A church with no roof. Like the Almighty bragging his head off.”

The Disc

Nothing extra, just scene selection. The barest of bare bones.

Why Did I Get This?

I remember watching this on Sky when it first came out – in fact I seem to remember it being presented as a Sky production, but looks like it was part of their deal with HBO, who appear to have funded the film.

A few years after seeing it, I managed to pick it up on DVD, but never actually rewatched it. Not entirely sure why I never revisited it, but I didn’t. What’s weirder is that nobody I’ve ever spoken to about it has ever seen it either, so if you’ve seen The Jack Bull, please let me know!

My lasting memory of it is that it was pretty worthy and had a heartbreaking ending, and the only time I’ve really heard about it was reading part of an interview with John C McGinley in which he said it was one of the films in his career that he was most proud of.

Here’s an absolutely terrible trailer for it, which completely misjudges the tone of the film, but let’s see how the full thing holds up…

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will go into detail about the film from start to finish, so if you’re looking to avoid potential spoilers, scroll down to the next heading.

The Jack Bull tells the story of horse trader Myrl Redding, who leaves two thoroughbred stallions and his friend with a local landowner as deferment of a toll, only to find on his return that the horse have been worked half to death and his friend has been badly beaten. When legal means fail to make the landowner make reparations for the damages, he takes the law into his own hands, but things quickly spiral out of control to a devastating finale.

There’s a line a little way into the film which explains its title, as Woody (John C McGinley), describes Myrl (John Cusack), as a “man with a bull head and a Jack Russel jaw”. As the movie starts, he’s almost in awe of his friend’s tenacity and refusal to let a matter drop. That admiration continues throughout the film, but becomes touched with sadness as the story continues to its tragic conclusion.

MYRL: “I believe that God is to man as man is to animal. You treat them with respect. You set dogs on a man, you pay for it. Now the law upholds these ideas, I mean to see the law has its day.”

Returning from auction, Myrl finds the prize horses his son helped rear, which he left in the care of landowner Henry Ballard (L.Q Jones), have been mistreated by Ballard’s men to the point where they’re virtually unrecognisable, while Native American friend and horse trainer Billy (Rodney A Grant), has been badly beaten. Myrl’s reaction is furious, but McGinley also does a terrific job in this scene, moved almost to tears by the plight of the animals.

Between them, Myrl, Billy and Woody show just how important these animals were to the men as traders, representing hundreds of hours of love and care, but also as decent people – alright, maybe ‘animal lovers = good, mistreatment of animals = bad’ is a bit over-simplistic, but a little bit of storytelling shorthand doesn’t hurt when (a) your movie clocks in at under two hours and (b) you’ve got the performing chops to sell it.

After a cowardly lawyer takes Myrl’s case and money to go up against the local judge – who has financial interest in Ballard’s land schemes – Myrl’s wife Cora (Miranda Otto), convinces him to let her take his case to the District Attorney, as she met his wife once and is convinced she’ll pass his details along.

Sadly, as good as Otto can be, she doesn’t get that much to work with in The Jack Bull. For the most part, she’s the loving wife, but has just enough spark to be able to convince Myrl that she’s the miracle he needs to have his plight taken seriously. In the few scenes they have together, it felt to me upon rewatching that Otto was the more generous performer, while Cusack was concentrating solely on Acting (with a capital A). It may be that his character’s singlemindedness led to his performance almost excluding his partner from the scene, but it felt to me like Otto was acting with Cusack, while Cusack was acting for the camera.

During her trip to plead her husband’s case, Cora is killed in a coach accident caused when Ballard’s attack Woody in the street, spooking some horses. The legal papers make their way into the D.A’s hands, but he sends them back to the crooked local judge who previously told Myrl’s lawyer that $50 was too much for injuries caused against a Native American (he doesn’t use that term), and the who suit is “prideful foolishness”.

McGinley looks utterly broken as he returns to Myrl’s ranch with the body of Cora, again, doing a lot with little on the page, and I found the following scene a powerful moment, as Myrl and Cora’s son Cage (Drake Bell – who not only sells the tragedy but looks uncannily like a young John Cusack), reads from the Bible as she is buried against a bleak, snowy background.

Once Myrl issues an ultimatum demanding Ballard bring his horses back to the state he left them in, and sells his land to his neighbour while putting the funds in a trust for his son, it becomes pretty clear where the story is heading – it’s not quite Robin Hood, but it’s the little man standing up for what’s right against the wealthy, corrupt landowner, inspiring (or in this case, paying), a band of followers to support his cause. Everyone agrees that Redding is in the right, and sign up on the understanding there’ll be no bloodshed, but we’ve all seen enough of these stories to know how this pans out.

The film – which was written by Dick Cusack, John’s father – and opens with a caption stating it’s inspired by a true story, but not a Western one. Rather, it’s based on a 16th Century merchant in Germany named Michael Kohlhaas, who was cheated out of two horse by an unscrupulous landowner and turned to burning down houses when he was failed by the law.

Like Kohlhaas, Redding pursues the man who wronged him, burning barns and homesteads in his wake. Admittedly, it’s quite satisfying to see Ballard racing from his own home in a state of anxiety as a hostile group of men on horseback lasso the watchmen on his toll gate and head for his ranch, but Redding’s turn from angry and frustrated horse trader to vigilante raider seems like an incredibly quick transition. Again, this may be due to the relatively short runtime of the film, but I couldn’t help thinking it might be better served as a limited series – indeed, the beats of the story almost lend themselves to an episodic breakdown.

Local lawmen and Ballard’s goons set out to track down Redding and his men, but clearly either don’t know the land or their prey well enough, as they’re quickly ambushed at camp one night – well, it’s not night, rather it’s shot in daylight with an awful blue filter attached in post that looks, frankly, terrible. Everything’s going okay, until one of Ballard’s men tries to shoot Billy in the back, and is shot by Myrl – again, he’s clearly doing the right thing, but you know it’s not going to look like it.

Likewise, when Myrl and Billy descend upon an isolated ranch to hand out a paper copy of the ultimatum, they’re welcomed with a barrage of bullets from the rancher. Cusack draws his weapon but never fires, but the rancher is firing wildly in panic and accidentally kills his own wife. Again, as the men ride away without knowing what’s happened, we know how it’s going to look.

As the barn burnings continue, the Army is set on Myrle and his posse, with Glen Morshower (do yourself a quick image search, I guarantee you’ve seen him in pretty much every US movie or mid to big-budget TV show that needs a senior military man), announcing gravely “the only way to calm Redding down is to shoot him down”, before leading his troops on a white flag mission to offer Myrl amnesty if he’ll go before an honest judge – an offer he accepts, but Billy cannot.

The honest Judge Tolliver, it turns out, is John Goodman – a man I’d want on my side in any argument and, frankly, a staggeringly powerful presence in this film. He agrees to hear Redding’s case against Ballard, and things look to be going in his favour, with Goodman clearly believing the simple honesty of horse trader over the blustering pride and implausible fibs of the landowner, and sternly demanding he get back in his seat as he improperly approaches the bench – seriously, that man can give orders.

But of course, things are going too well for Myrl, so it’s left to the Governor’s weaselly lackey (played by Kurt Fuller because when you need a weaselly lackey, he’s your first choice), to explain the offer of amnesty was made and accepted after the two deaths which Redding has been blamed for, meaning the Governor is effectively pardoning him for murder.

This discovery coincides with a friend of Billy – who of course is still an outlaw – sneaking to Myrl’s lodgings mid-trial to find out how proceedings are going, then getting caught by one of Ballard’s goons with a letter from Redding to his friend which, technically means he’s broken his amnesty agreement and rendered it null and void.

Now in shackles and on trial for murder, Myrl solemnly listens to the sheriff who led the posse claim he murdered Ballard’s man in cold blood, and the rancher claim Redding shot his wife outside their home, while Cage sits with his head hung sadly and Woody does his best to comfort the boy.

Judge Tolliver looks on in admiration as Myrl speaks passionately about his situation, acknowledges he took the law into his own hands but denies both counts of murder, even telling the rancher…

MYRL: “I’m sorry for your wife. But you are a liar.”

The jury find Myrl not guilty of Slater’s murder, but guilty of insurrection and the murder of the rancher’s wife, and as Ballard cheers and grins, he’s given another short, sharp bollocking by the Judge (“Wipe that smile off your face, Mr Ballard, this is serious business.”), and Tolliver upholds Myrl’s petition against the villain… and also sentences him to two years in prison for perjury.

Before he goes to prison though, Ballard has to work the stables for three months and bring the stallions back to the prime condition they were in before all this unpleasantness occurred, giving Cusack chance for a grim smile as Ballard is led away by the law.

So at best, a mixed result, I guess. Except for the footage of Billy and the rest of Redding’s posse being massacred by the Army while crossing a river intercut with Tolliver sentencing Myrl to death by hanging as soon as the horses are in a condition he deems suitable.

Christ, I remembered it being pretty bleak but this is a glum ending.

We skip ahead three months to find Woody overseeing Ballard’s grooming of the horses – now back in fine fettle and looking as good as they did on day one – as Myrl arrives in shackles to the newly-built (and still being tested), gallows.

Myrl holds himself together while Cage desperately offers suggestions of escape or bargaining, and I’m almost in bits just watching a genuinely touching farewell scene between the two. Myrl makes his son promise never to sell the horses, and accepts his fate while urging him to stand his ground as he makes his own way in life…

MYRL: “Somebody steps on your rights, go after them. Never give up, never. Just be smarter than I was.”

Meanwhile, Judge Tolliver has a conversation with the crooked Judge Wilkins who could have sorted the whole affair before the bloodshed began, and gives him a furious but quiet bollocking for failing the law and failing a good man, then announces he’s called on the Governor to hold an inquiry which will hopefully lead to his impeachment for being an utter dick. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist, and it’s a great scene.

I’d love to say there’s a last-minute reprieve followed by a happy ending, but Myrl refuses a hood at the gallows and is killed as the entire town looks on in silent respect, before Cage and Woody cut down his body and as they lead it away with the black horses, the solemn scene is intercut with scenes of a parade welcoming statehood and Bob Dylan’s Ring Them Bells plays over the credits.

Seriously, such a bleak ending.

Thoughts On The Film

I’ll be honest, this was perhaps a little more straightforward than I’d remembered, with some of the messaging a little more on the nose than I expected and less grey in the characterisation than I thought there was.

That being said, Cusack, McGinley and Goodman are giving it their all, with Cusack more or less managing to hold onto the character’s iron will and dogged determination without being subtle, but without being too showy either. His pain and tenacity is right there in those big, hurting eyes, and he knows what to do with them.

Myrl’s final farewells to his son were more heartbreaking than I remembered, and really affected me (though that could just be because I’m getting soft in my old age). Conversely, Ballard’s villainy was a lot more cartoony than I remembered it being – a fact not helped by L.Q. Jones looking like the bad guy from almost every Scooby Doo episode.

McGinley doesn’t have a massive amount to do, but when he’s on screen he’s great, particularly when he’s conveying sadness. He doesn’t even need to speak – can’t bring himself to, on occasion – but puts it all out there.

John Goodman though… man, why isn’t he talked about more as a great actor? Alright, he had quite an imposing figure back then, but the second he appears on screen he commands the scene completely, and when he tells characters to shut up, by gum, you shut up right along with them. He’s also doing a lot more than is on the page too, delivering his verdicts and sentencings as he must, but with an air of sadness that corruption by the wealthy, more than an individual’s wrongdoing, have led to the death of an honest man.

On a minor stylistic point, I didn’t care much for the use of blue or yellow filters to denote night scenes or flashbacks, and they looked pretty cheap to me. However, I suspect they were budgetary decisions rather than technological ones. That being said, they were used sparsely enough not to be a constant pain (though that did make them all the more jarring when they did appear!).

Verdict

There are some great performances on show here, and some utterly stunning scenery to boot, in a solid, good-hearted Western.

Recommended.

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