Written and Directed by: Michael R. Roskam
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval, Barbara Sarafian and Jeanne Dandoy
Nominated in the Best Foreign Film category at this year’s Oscars, writer-director Michael R. Roskam’s BULLHEAD could very well be the underdog niche market knockout that film lovers root for to take home the gold statuette. While I applaud him for his completely original story, I wasn’t fully compelled or engaged by the journey of the titular protagonist, Jacky, nor that of the people around him. It’s just too bad the script doesn’t exhibit the strength and brute force of Jacky himself.
BULLHEAD espouses a hopeless view of the themes of hidden pasts, redemption, and consequences from the start with Jacky’s (Matthias Schoenaerts) voiceover stating, “No matter what you do, you are always fucked.” He is the muscle of his family’s cattle business. With his hulking and forceful frame, he is a domineering presence you don’t ever want to make angry (but secretly want to see spiral out of control) and is constantly pumped up on steroids and growth hormones. He and his Uncle Eddy initiate a shady deal with a notorious mafioso meat trader, whose crew includes Diederick (Jeroen Perceval) – an estranged childhood friend of Jacky’s who’s also a police informant. When a detective investigating the illegal trade of bovine growth hormones – something Jacky’s family farm uses – turns up murdered, and more people from the past start bubbling to the surface, Jacky must confront his demons and set right what has gone so wrong.
Since the concept was so nichely unique, I was hoping for more of a thrilling edge to the story at hand. However, that’s clearly not what writer-director Roskam had in mind with the script that’s more about quiet refinement than it is about tactile, in your face brawn and heft. Flat out, this is a man trying his best to stifle his rage and function normally set against the backdrop of the Belgian bovine hormone mafia. As compared to the elevator scene in DRIVE, BULLHEAD’s elevator ride – which should be the culmination of the drama – is fairly one note. He’s a man who was traumatized as a child, and once again feels trapped, only now he’s finally able to fight back. Does this set right what happened to him as a boy? Not really. Is it the catharsis the audience wants for the character? Maybe. I was constantly hoping that BULLHEAD would ratchet up the crazy level, where Jacky’s vengeful anger could no longer be contained – like a character out of BRONSON or A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. And we nearly get there in the end. All the action in the rest of the film is left off screen – on the cutting room floor – to make the ending that much more of a powerful punch.
In contrast to the plodding story, BULLHEAD’s technical aspects rise to the top of this simmering cauldron of a character study. Visually speaking, BULLHEAD is a near masterpiece from Roskam. His camerawork and technique – along with Nicolas Karakatsanis’ luminous cinematography – are striking, arresting, and haunting. The overcast Flemish countryside has never looked better (or bleaker), and brilliantly complements the dreariness of Jacky’s inner struggle. Roskam effortlessly weaves visual motifs of bars or vertical lines into scenes – whether it be at the racetrack, bar, cattle pen, or trees – which brilliantly suggest Jacky’s feelings of imprisonment and are a fitting nod to film noir. He’s trapped in a prison, but it’s one of partially of his own making. Schoenaerts inhabits his lead character beautifully, striking a precarious balance between Jacky’s broken vulnerability and intense anger.
BULLHEAD opens in New York, Los Angeles and Austin on February 17 and expands to more cities on February 24.