17 February 2013
Bullhead was Belgium’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language film Academy Award last year. It made the shortlist but eventually lost to the far superior A Separation from Iran. It is a decent drama that boasts an incredible central performance by Rust and Bone’s Matthias Schoenaerts. For a feature debut, you could do a lot worse than this.
Yet it feels like so much is crammed into a sizeable 2-hours-and-change running time. Schoenaerts plays Jacky, the eldest of the Flemish-speaking Vanmarsenille boys, who run a cattle farm in Wallonia. We first meet him intimidating a fellow farmer to sell his bulls only to the Vanmarsenille family. Jacky is a brutal force of nature - built of muscle and bad temper. Schoenaerts reportedly gained 27kg to get the effect. He is less than subtly the bullhead of the title. When he speaks, it comes out in short bursts, accentuated with gasps and loud exhalations. you can almost see smoke coming out of his nostrils. He doesn’t feel comfortable in his skin and he is unable to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes before unleashing his formidable force on something or someone.
He is reluctant to engage in starting a business partnership with a well-known Flemish right-wing mafia to control the animal hormone business, but his family is in insistent that it will be beneficial for their farm. Unlucky for him, the mafia have just executed the top police officer in the country dealing with the hormone mafia. When police takes a whiff of this potential partnership, he unwittingly finds himself in the middle of a massive police investigation.
There is enough drama for an edge-of-your-seat thriller there, but writer-director Michaël R. Roskam opts for a little bit more, which pays off in an uneven fashion. Jacky is haunted by a gruesome childhood ‘accident’, which rears its ugly head wherever he turns. The coincidental involvement of his childhood friend with the hormone mafia only serves as a weak connection between his inner turmoil and the external one he will find himself in.
Personally, I found Jacky’s inner drama far more compelling than the hormone mafia storyline, which gets overly melodramatic and downright nonsensical towards the end. In fact the last 20 minutes or so completely undermines all Roskam have done up to that point. The childhood trauma, which I cannot give away for fear of spoiling it, is truly a unique and perplexing conflict - one which could have played out in many different ways. I think Roskam should have picked a far less interesting backstory to get insight into his characters than this.
Roskam also points at the rather jaded relationship between the French-speaking Walloons and the Flemish-speakers, but all that tension only appears on the surface - so much more could have been done to reflect that in the actual drama without resorting to bland racial slurs.
Overall it is good film with some very memorable performances. Roskam’s feature debut points to a director who won’t shy away from big questions, but I think he should tackle them one by one rather than wholesale.