Bulldog [Kieran Stringfellow, UK, 2020]

What comes to mind when you think of bulldogs? Faded tattoos stretched across grizzled biceps, multiple-ringed hands wrapped around half-drunk pints of ale, and the murmur of collective grumbling in a pub replete with sports television and squalid toilets. The image is so hyper-masculine that it was even used to front a brand of skincare for men, balancing the presumed femininity of a good moisturiser. What an alpha dog.

In Bulldog, award-winning writer and director Kieran Stringfellow subverts preconceived ideas not only about this old school emblem of manliness, but also of rough sleepers. Jumping between the present and the future, the film successfully plays with the audience’s presumptions about the main character, a homeless man on the brink of committing a violent crime. It is a difficult film to write about without giving it all away, but to do so would be a great disservice to both the talented director and the uninitiated viewer, so I’ll proceed with caution.

The short opens with a gritty urban palette of icy blues and chilly greys – a colour scheme that pervades throughout the majority of the picture, interspersed only with the blood red of a flashing alarm. We see a man, or rather, part of a man. With extreme close-ups of grubby hands, worn trainers, and the sliver of a face in a shard of broken glass, Stringfellow cleverly avoids giving the viewer the full picture. And yet, we feel we know the protagonist already. As he purposefully shoplifts a hammer, our minds are made up: he is certainly up to no good. Notably, this scene is filmed entirely from behind showing only the back of his head, which is further obscured by a hood. Bulldog is also completely wordless – the audience is denied almost any access to the character’s inner self.

The film then flips between the present and the future, before and after the mysterious crime is committed. This is effective in portraying our foregone conclusions: judging by what we’ve already seen, he might as well be a criminal already. When his misdeed is finally revealed, we realise how wrong we are.

The final scene is wonderful in so many ways. Firstly, its unexpectedness is testament to Stringfellow’s fine filmmaking. Using the techniques discussed above, he hoodwinks us with our own prejudices. Although, watch it again and you’ll find carefully laid clues. Secondly, the wordlessness of the film stops being a tool to distance the audience from the character and becomes an aid to the intimacy of this moment. Terror turns to a tenderness fully expressed by the actor’s (Louis Brogan) physical gestures. The love and care with which he carries his loot powerfully conveys its value to him more than words ever could.

Bulldog fantastically flips our ignorant assertions about both homelessness and brute masculinity, fostering empathy and affection where before there was only hostility and suspicion. Stringfellow and his production team, Block B Films, have won multiple festival awards including the Silver Frame at Short Focus Film Festival 2020 and, given the subtle sophistication of this short, they are well-primed to win several more.

'Bulldog' was the winner of the Silver Frame at Short Focus Film Festival 2020.

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