By Don Simpson | February 12, 2012
Director: Michael R. Roskam
Writer: Michael R. Roskam
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval, Jeanne Dandoy, Barbara Sarafian, Tibo Vandenborre, Frank Lamers, Sam Louwyck, Robin Valvekens, Baudoin Wolwertz, David Murgia, Erico Salamone, Philippe Grand’Henry, Kris Cuppens, Sofie Sente, Kristof Renson, Hein van der Heijden, Stefaan Degand, Mike Reus, Ludmilla Klejnak, Renaud Rutten
“No matter what you do or think, one thing is for sure, you’re always fucked. Now, tomorrow, next week or next year, until the end of time, fucked.” – Jacky Vanmarsenille
Jacky Vanmarsenille’s (Matthias Schoenaerts) existential angst expressed during the opening voiceover for Bullhead is not surprising once we are privy to a certain childhood trauma that forever alters his destiny. The event has rendered Jacky loveless and addicted to a hodgepodge of growth hormones and steroids. Jacky’s steady diet of hormones and steroids has turned him into a mountainous animal of a human being; but his intimidating frame also comes in handy in his family’s shady business…
Located in Limburg — the easternmost province of Flemish Belgium — the Vanmarsenille farm is a relatively small player in the world of hormone trading. An opportunity has recently arisen that will allow them to gain a lot more respect and money. A ruthless Walloon meat magnate, De Kuyper (Sam Louwyck), is in search of a new (preferably smaller) supplier of illegal hormones after the police brought down his previous one. The cop who has targeted De Kuyper just turned up dead, and everyone knows that De Kuyper was directly involved in the murder. Jacky immediately recognizes that huge risks are involved in this business venture; but he wants even less to do with the deal when he discovers that an old friend (who is directly associated with Jacky’s aforementioned childhood trauma) is working as a negotiator for De Kuyper.
Unfortunately, the real focus of Bullhead — which is the compelling character study of Jacky — is blurred and marred by an all-too-contrived, over-arching plot featuring a police investigation that often drags the narrative off on pointless tangents. But whenever writer-director Michael R. Roskam’s debut feature film turns its focus towards Jacky, Bullhead becomes utterly mesmerizing.
Schoenaerts’ transcendental performance as Jacky — with drearily absent stare, imposing physical presence and violent bursts of rage — is so morally complex that we never know whether we should sympathize with his character or not. Thanks to Roskam’s use of flashbacks, we see that Jacky (Robin Valvekens) was once a weak little boy who became irrevocably damaged. Jacky’s recklessly out-of-control overcompensation from his childhood trauma has caused him to de-evolve into an animal of a man (hence his titular nickname) fueled by inhumane rations of hormones and steroids. The only similarity between present-day Jacky and young Jacky is in name alone; every other aspect of Jacky has been drowned and altered by chemicals. When placed in this context, it is difficult to not feel really damn sorry for Jacky.
Surprisingly, Roskam reveals one of his strengths as writer and director to be his deft handling of Jacky’s love interest. This Beauty and the Beast-esque sub-plot is a tactic utilized by Roskam to tug at our heartstrings, but it is done with such finesse that it all seems so honest and earnest. Roskam also quite purposefully shies away from showing too many of Jacky’s outbursts violence on screen — we know Jacky is a violent person, but not witnessing it firsthand might actually help the audience retain its sympathy for him. In the world of cinema, it is often suggested that violent characters are overcompensating for something — usually something sexual, like impotence; Jacky’s overcompensation is blatantly brought to our attention as a major plot-point and not clouded by allusions of symbols or metaphors.
At the core of Bullhead is something that most non-Belgian viewers may not catch (or understand) — the inherent feud between Belgium’s two main linguistic groups, the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons. Back in the 19th century it was necessary to speak French in order to belong to the upper class; Dutch-speakers were therefore relegated to second-class citizens. Flemish movements eventually were able to reverse this situation by their steadfast refusal to adopt French as their primary language, eventually succeeding in imposing Dutch as Northern Belgium’s (a.k.a. Flanders) official language. Belgian politics has became increasingly dominated by the autonomy of its two main language communities as rising tensions have prompted constitutional amendments in order to minimize potential conflicts. Bullhead reveals that discriminating stereotypes between the Flemish and Walloons have certainly not subsided.
Roskam shows a lot of promise as a filmmaker, as does Schoenaerts as a lead actor. Aside from a nagging over-reliance on slow-motion, Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography is quite masterful; as is Raf Keunen’s score. Nonetheless, I am still shocked and awed that Bullhead has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year at the 84th Academy Awards. It is a very bold selection that, despite its perplexing nature, reveals that maybe the Academy does have some cojones after all.
(Don’t forget to check out all of the other films we previewed for the SF IndieFest 2012.)