Review: Bullhead

Belgian writer-director Michaël R. Roskam’s debut feature Bullhead was a 2011 box-office hit in Belgium and earned a nomination at last year’s Oscars, but only finally made its way to UK cinemas in March 2013.  A release in no small part down to lead actor Matthias Schoenaerts enhancing his reputation opposite Marion Cotillard in last year’s Rust and Bone, thereby rekindling interest in his earlier film.

Just as in Rust and Bone, Schoenaerts’ imposing heavyweight-boxer physicality makes him an intense presence in Bullhead, in the role of steroid-pumped cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille. The animalistic, ultra-aggressive Jacky is first introduced to us snarling and charging head-first, straight into an intimidated meat trader who is made to understand, in no uncertain terms, he must keep selling Jacky’s products and not the competition’s.

To be sure, this is no ordinary beef industry but the heart of Belgium’s “hormone underworld mafia”, and Jacky, like his father before him, injects his animals with illegal growth hormones (reinforcing the clear metaphorical connection between Jacky and his bulls). This unique setting for a thriller might seem rather contrived, if it wasn’t based on a real-life network in rural Belgium and the murder of a veterinarian who threatened to uncover the cattle hormone ring in the late 90s.

Bullhead’s atmospheric cinematography and dense plot takes in a host of seedy characters and settings. Via cop-killing Flemish fascists, lovelorn police informants, red light districts, unscrupulous farmers aplenty, teenage psychopaths, and a duo of dim-witted Walloon mechanics, Belgium is here transformed into a dark, brooding locale to rival any film noir environment. A sense is conveyed of the bitter tribalistic divide between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloons, a real issue which leaves Belgium a country with constant tensions heading towards an inevitable split. All these disparate thriller and national-allegory elements, despite a couple of off-key notes, are just about threaded together into a cohesive whole.

But altogether more impressive is Bullhead’s emotional core, and in the second half Schoenaerts’ performance dominates. A chance meeting with childhood friend Diedrik (played by Jeroen Perceval, more rat or shrew-like to Jacky’s bull) revives traumatic memories in Jacky of a gruesome event that happened to him as a young boy. The film is prompted into flashbacks just as Jacky himself is confronted with these memories, and we are forced to rethink our opinion of him.

At this point the film reveals its primary theme: the crisis of masculinity. The attack on Jacky happened just as his adolescent masculinity was burgeoning, but leaves him needing regular testosterone injections. One telling flashback sees his anxious parents ask a doctor if their son now risks becoming gay, and the rest of Jacky’s existence becomes an attempt to prove his masculinity, however (literally) artificial that might be as a concept. In an interesting inversion of traditional roles, it is not the alpha-male Jacky but Diedrik, a closet homosexual, who finally conveys the role of protector.

A lesser performance would not have been able to carry this film the way Schoenaerts does. One scene towards the end, where Jacky all but too obviously verbalises the central metaphor by comparing himself to his animals, could have been laughable were it not for the emotional strength of the acting. Instead Bullhead leaves a surprisingly moving climax hitting home the sadness of Jacky as a character who wishes to live a life he never could live.

Schoenaerts trained for over a year to bulk up for the part and his performance has rightly received much praise, while Roskam might follow in Nicolas Winding Refn’s footsteps in making the move from Euro-thriller to Hollywood – he’s been signed up to direct Brad Pitt in The Tiger. He is a director worth keeping an eye on and Bullhead is a film very much worth watching now that it’s finally been distributed here.

Bullhead: ★★★★

(Belgium, 2011)

Dir: Michaël R. Roskam

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