A desire for justice drives the protagonist of this movie. Like many people in every age he comes to see that on Earth justice must be dealt out by men. His tenacity in pursuit of that justice and the analogous characteristics of the Jack Russell (Jack Bull) Terrier's biting grip give the title to this movie. In many ways the prevailing “system of justice” in the territory of Wyoming provides the greatest adversary opposing the protagonist's desire to set things right in this story.
The movie begins with horses running. Although in a corral they still give the impression of being at liberty. Cage Redding (Drake Bell), a boy, and Billy (Rodney A. Grant), a Crow Indian, who care for and train the two young stallions, send them to a stable since a storm nears. A group of horsemen riding along a ridge also head to town seeking shelter from the same storm. Henry Ballard (L.Q. Jones) leads this group of men. Once in town we discover he also leads a cattleman's association which meets there.
An older but still intimidating man, Ballard confronts the owner of the general store about a Wyoming statehood petition he circulates attempting to gather signatures. Ballard opposes statehood and confronts another customer at the store: Myrl Redding (John Cusack), a horse trader – Cage's father – there shopping with his wife Cora (Miranda Otto). The younger Redding at first states that making a fuss about statehood wastes time, but neither does he sign the petition. His wife Cora, one of the most reasonable characters in the movie, discourages Myrl from indulging in conflict. However, Ballard keeps at him about statehood and the dire consequence he foresees from it until Redding decides to sign the petition.
Later, at home, Myrl tells Cage of the problems inherent in raising and trading horses: one loves them as they grow, but must later part with them in trade. Myrl, his hired hand Woody (John C. McGinley) and Billy set out with a fair number of horses for an auction. Promised to a buyer, they also take the two young black stallions raised by Cage and Billy. Casper, WY hosts the horse auction and provides the place to meet-up with the buyer for the two stallions. The only timely path to Casper lies across Henry Ballard's land. When Myrl and company arrive at the edge of Ballard's land they discover a new fence and a toll gate. Ballard announces a toll of $10. Not having planned on the toll, Myrl doesn't have enough to pay. Ballard says he'll take the young black stallions as collateral until Myrl returns. Billy also stays to care for the horses.
When they return flush with cash from horse sales they find the young stallions severely mistreated. Ballard's men also beat Billy who returned to Myrl's ranch. At first Redding seeks justice by filing a lawsuit attempting to make Ballard restore his horses to their prior condition. However, the local court, presided over by Judge Wilkins (Ken Pogue) – a close associate of Henry Ballard – dismisses this action for “lack of evidence.” After Cora pleads with him to let her use her acquaintance with the Attorney General's wife to have his case heard, he assents to let her try. However, her trip to Cheyenne pursuing that effort ends in disaster. At that point Myrl organizes a pursuit of justice outside the system which failed him. Eventually the Governor, Attorney General and Judge Tolliver (John Goodman), a prominent jurist, must deal with Myrl and his desire for justice.
Do not come to this film looking for “happy endings.” Based on the German Romantic era tale: Michael Kohlhaas, written by Heinrich von Kleist – which itself relies on earlier events in the states of Saxony and Brandenburg – the story possesses a grim but quite realistic logic. It contains many similarities to several other popular westerns, e.g. Henry Ballard often seems much like Rufus Ryker from Shane, or the adversaries from Pale Rider and Open Range. More than merely the “bad guys” may be similar to other Westerns, but unlike in Shane, the State and its “justice system” – as well as the threat of violence from Military force: the State's ultimate enforcement arm – figure prominently in The Jack Bull.
The translation from the original story's setting in 16th Century Germany to the American West may have introduced some problematic aspects, which might suggest themselves to a critical viewer. However, the movie definitely warrants watching as it outlines problems inherent in the usual “systems of justice” and the States which uphold them. With one exception, the political characters in the film are every bit as despicable as Henry Ballard at his worst. The system they work toward: statehood, promises only more of the same or as we can now observe: even worse. Although certainly not a “feel good” movie, I believe The Jack Bull well worth the time for viewing, because of the quality of the story, its insights, the very fine performances and high quality direction.