All too often I see the films nominated for—and sometimes winning—the Best Foreign Language Oscar, only to find myself wondering why. (I’ve given up trying to understand why everyone thought 2006’s The Lives of Others was an “eternity of suspense.” I thought it was good, but nothing special.) When I was told I was going to watch a Belgian movie about the Belgian cattle-hormone mafia (who knew?), I found myself groaning in disbelief—and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if you are, too. But hold up a moment, because that’s only sort of what this truly exceptional, dark and disturbing film is about. Mostly, that angle carries the plot and very little more. Yes, it qualifies as a crime drama—and it can be a pretty brutal one—but there’s a great deal more going on here than you usually find in films with that label. It has something of the same existential dread seen in last year’s Drive—in fact, it occasionally reminded me of that film—but I also found Bullhead to be a film of much greater emotional resonance. I suspect I know why, but I’ll leave that alone for now.
Bullhead comes as the first feature film for writer-director Michael R. Roskam, and it’s considerably more than just an assured debut work. It’s the work of a man with a distinctive and unusual style, as evidenced from the very start in subtle ways—such as moving shots that appear to be subjective, but turn out not to be. This becomes more apparent as the film progresses, and the shots slowly become more and more stylized. It’s as if the further we’re drawn into the story, the more the camera—and the viewer—become participants rather than observers. Thanks to this technique, the final moments in the film are shattering in an almost hallucinatory fashion.
Roskam is helped to no end by his star, Matthias Schoenaerts, as the ill-fated Jacky Vanmarsenille. If you’ve read anything at all about the film, you know that Schoenaerts put on 60 pounds of muscle in preparation for the role. Yes, that’s impressive, but it’s the kind of thing that feels like a stunt. His performance, however, is no stunt at all. Schoenaerts seems to completely embody every aspect of his childhood-damaged, steroid-enhanced, plainly addled character. He achieves a level of heartbreaking tragedy, but without begging for our sympathy, or ever losing sight of the fact that Jacky is potentially a very dangerous, very frightening man.
As noted, the plot is at least partly driven by Jacky and his family getting in too deep with the murderous hormone mafia, but the greater significance of this lies in the fact that it reacquaints him with Diederik Maes (Jeroen Perceval), a former childhood friend—a friend inextricably tied to the childhood event that taints every aspect of Jacky’s life. I will not detail the event—that should be discovered in the course of the film—but it’s one where Diederik might have helped Jacky and didn’t for a variety of reasons. In this regard, it also colors Diederik’s life—especially, since the gay Diederik implicitly cared even more deeply for his friend than it appeared on the surface—and fuels his own need for a redemption that is probably impossible and for an admission that can never be made.
One of the remarkable things about Bullhead is how extremely interconnected nearly all the events and the characters are. This, I believe, is what—along with the slowly developed tragic backstory—makes the film so astonishingly powerful in terms of its emotional impact. By this point, you’re probably wondering why I don’t give the film I’ve so praised the full five-star rating. Maybe one day I will, but there’s a semi-essential tangent about a stolen car that eats up too much of the film for more than its relatively simple purpose. It doesn’t really harm the film, but it pulls us away from an otherwise powerful story. I’d still put Bullhead down as a must-see, though I suspect it will be too brutal for some. Rated R for some strong violence, language and sexual content.