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STUDIO Image Entertainment
RUNNING TIME 124 minutes
• Commentary with director Michaël Roskam.
• The Making of Bullhead featurette.
• Interview with director Michaël Roskam.
• Interview with star Matthias Schoenaerts.
• The One Thing to Do, a short film from 2005, directed by Roskam and starring Schoenaerts.
A slow-burn descent into the hell of emasculation.
Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval, Jeanne Dandoy
Small time gangster Jacky Vanmarsenille runs a racket forcing slaughterhouses to take his hormone-embiggened cattle at low prices. Jacky himself is a hulking mess of injectable chemicals, from hormones to steroids to who knows what else. A horrifying trauma from his past leaves him dependent on these drugs, and when a woman linked to that event resurfaces in his life, he begins to slowly unhinge. At the same time, Jacky has made a deal with some traders who have gotten themselves into a heap of trouble by killing a federal investigator, and law enforcement is beginning to close in on all of them.
What does it mean to be a man? That’s a question buzzing in the back of Bullhead‘s mind, a stubborn idea that lingers and haunts it. The movie may follow criminals and the illegal hormone trade in Belgium (which is apparently a thing), but there are very few illegality-related shenanigans to be found here. Rather, it’s focused around its central theme, embodied in the character of Jacky, who is frighteningly realized through Matthias Schoenaerts’s incredible performance.
Jacky is a brooding goliath, a thug who, while not having a heart of gold (pretty far from it, in fact), has a deeply conflicted inner life that belies his exterior. That complexity comes from his constant grappling with a lack of complexity, with the animalism that lurks inside him. He is so focused on living up to his idea of what a man is that he often forgets to be human, and his journey through the film finds him confronting the trauma that he fears has made it impossible for him to ever be a true man.
Schoenaerts is a sort of anti-Tom-Hardy-in-Bronson here, playing a role that’s all physicality, but with the opposite demands in terms of mood. While Jacky has something of a default expression of subdued stoicism, Schoenaerts’s body language subtly shows what’s really going on in his head. It’s a precisely controlled performance. Jacky is a wounded, empty bull wondering if there’s anything more to him. If this were a just world, Schoenaerts would have been nominated for, or even won, an Oscar this year.
Schoenaerts carries the film so thoroughly that it’s easy to forget that there’s a lot more going on in it. The problem is that almost none of it is nearly as interesting as Jacky’s story. Jeroen Perceval turns in an admirable supporting role as Jacky’s childhood friend Diederik. He’s a police informant going through a somewhat standard loyalty-versus-conscience-versus-self-preservation torment, but Perceval makes it work. Less interesting are the details of the police investigation into Jacky’s deal with the meat traders, or the adventures of a pair of comic relief chop shoppers who don’t really add all that much. There’s a moment near the end where the sequence of events surrounding the deal and the death of the fed get recapped, and all it does is lay bare how little any of that really mattered in what Jacky goes through. It serves mainly to provide an excuse for a finale that allows Jacky to finally unleash his inner animal, a punctuation mark of emotional ejaculate that’s kind of at odds with what the rest of the movie seems to be going for.
The film looks absolutely gorgeous. Like I said, it’s a very deliberate piece of work, despite the violent atmosphere, and the compositions are almost painterly, with beautiful shots of skies and meadows and animals in mass motion. Director Michaël Roskam has put together a stunningly assured feature debut, demonstrating in particular an adeptness at shaking up his editing in order to raise tension, such as in the aforementioned climax, or in a flashback sequence to the terrible childhood event that has made Jacky what he is today.
Bullhead is about how the past shapes our present, and how we struggle to shake off the weight of perception, both social and personal. This is a world where nature is stifled or controlled, where cattle are pumped up to disturbing proportions and crops grow in orderly grids. We try to tame, buy, and sell nature, mirrored in Jacky’s attempt to live up to an ideal through imbibing hormones and steroids to the point where he looks and acts like a fearsome parody of the masculine archetype. But at what cost? And what does that say about what we consider the ideal? The way the movie asks this question leaves a trailing ellipsis in place of anything definitive, a haunting answer if there ever was one.
Drafthouse Films was in charge of distributing the movie stateside, and they did a fantastic job of it. They’re one of the smart cookies taking a page from Criterion’s book with their DVD and Blu-Ray releases. You can reverse the cover to feature the awesome alternate poster art (inspired by the insane world of Polish movie posters) if you wish. A lovely little booklet comes enclosed, with an introduction to the film from Michael Mann and thoughts on it from character actor Udo Kier, as well as just plain lovely, moody tableaus from the movie.
The best special feature is Roskam’s short film The One Thing to Do, an In Bruges-ish piece about a pair of gangsters who go hunting for a target abroad, only to get caught up in aimless partying after they’re unable to find him. It has an earlier performance from Schoenaerts, who shows that he’s had the swing of moodiness for a while.
Besides that, there’s a nice pair of interviews with Roskam and Schoenaerts (Who is shockingly fluent in English. As in, he doesn’t even have the hint of an accent), a standard-ish commentary featuring Roskam (I’ve rarely found single-person commentaries to be terribly fun or informative), and a good half-hour making-of featurette. What’s notable about that short is that it shows the behind-the-scenes of the movie’s Big Moment, and it’s kind of surreal to see children and crew members joking lightly about the horrific act that they’re in the process of shooting. Besides that, there’s some interesting stuff about the ridiculous diet Schoenaerts put himself on in order to gain sixty pounds to play Jacky.
The movie itself, combined with the wonderful packaging, more than makes this worth a buy.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars