The Jack Bull

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 11, 2013

The Jack Bull—John Cusack, John Goodman, L.Q. Jones, Miranda Otto, John C. McGinley, John Savage, Rodney A. Grant (Made for television, 1999; Dir:  John Badham)


Beautiful cinematography with a wintry cast to it, appropriate for the bleak material.  This was made for HBO before widescreen televisions were widespread, and widescreen DVDs of it can be hard to find. 

This is a grim tale of an obsessive hunt for justice in Wyoming, ca. 1890.  Myrl Redding (John Cusack) is a small horse trader in Rawlins.  A local cattle baron, Henry Ballard (L.Q. Jones), is trying to discourage locals from agitating for statehood, which he figures will restrict his ability to do as he pleases.  When Redding signs a pro-statehood petition, Ballard buys the land leading to a pass and puts in a fence, restricting travel in the area. 


Redding (John Cusack), trying to figure out what’s ethical.

On his way to an auction in Casper, Redding is forced to leave two black stallions with Ballard as security, only to find them in bad shape when he returns for them, with his Crow hand Billy (Rodney A. Grant) badly beaten by Ballard’s men.  From there things get out of control as Redding organizes his neighbors in an obsessive quest for justice—futile because the local judge is in Ballard’s pocket.  Everybody gets pushed into making choices they don’t want, even the purported semi-bad guy (Ballard). 


There are Unintended Consequences.  Redding’s wife Cora (Miranda Otto) is accidentally killed while seeking redress from the attorney general in Cheyenne, her death steeling Redding’s resolve.  Ballard’s foreman Staker (John Savage) is killed by Redding in a confrontation as Staker tries to get Billy.  A rancher’s wife gets killed accidentally in a confrontation with a band led by Redding, even though Redding didn’t want that. 

Redding is convicted of murder (for the rancher’s wife) and sentenced to be hung as statehood is declared.  Judge Joe B. Tolliver (John Goodman) investigates and sympathizes with Redding, but in the end there appears to be nothing anybody can do.  Not an easy black and white, good versus evil story.  Honor, duty, pride and justice collide, and people make their choices.  

Well acted, especially by John Cusack, Miranda Otto as Redding’s wife Cora in a brief role and by John Goodman who expresses the tragedy of it all.  Jones’ Ballard is continually objectionable, if clueless.  Having appeared in a number of Peckinpah and other westerns, his presence provides a familiar face.


Judge Joe B. Tolliver (John Goodman) explains it all, but he can’t fix any of it.

This bleak, tragic story has a screenplay written by Cusack’s father Dick, loosely based on Heinrich von Kleist’s 1811 novel Michael Kohlhaas.  (Dick Cusack also has a cameo as the jury foreman.)  Late 20th century social attitudes intrude a bit, with blacks given more visibility than they probably had in 1890s Wyoming.  Wyoming Territory was the first place in the country women could vote, but you probably wouldn’t find blacks on a jury.  The title apparently refers to a Jack Russell terrier, tenacious enough so that once it locks its jaws it never lets go.  Here that tenacity leads to a tragic conclusion.

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