Review: Michael Roskam's 'Bullhead' is a Staggering Character Drama
by Jeremy Kirk
February 17, 2012
Matthias Schoenaerts is the absolute core of Bullhead, an emotionally and psychologically driven character study and Belgium's entry to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film - one of the five nominees. Schoenaerts plays Jacky, a cattle farmer caught up in the crime world of illegal growth hormones, who keeps himself on a steady diet of the drugs. He's anxious but always in a kind of haze, uncomfortable in his own skin and unable to get away from the rage, psychosis, and physical disfigurement of a horrifying, childhood event. But Jacky's past comes back, and an inescapable chain of events lead to tragic results.
Schoenaerts, who packed on 60-70 pounds of muscle for the role, is intimidating but vulnerable. The actor plays the part as much with his eyes and expressions as he does with his hands and body. He gives Jacky the same level of physical presence and intensity as Javier Bardem gave to Anton Chigur, yet the emotional center of this character, those moments when the eyes do the acting and the hands aren't even in the shot, is what makes it work from beginning to stunning end. Schoenaerts raises the level even further with instances of bull mimicry. The actor literally nudges his head against anyone he's trying to intimidate. He huffs while he moves and even lets out shrieking bellows when he's on the attack. It's a multi-faceted character made all the more unforgettable by one of the finest performances in years.
But Schoenaerts' performance doesn't have to raise Bullhead's estimation by any regards. First-time writer & director Michael Roskam has created a story and a film that dominates in every area, epic in feel yet meditative and personal by design. Roskam's unconventional crime drama proves once again that the best of these films are really about connections, relationships between characters that make or break their outcome in the story. Told in flashback, the event that shaped Jacky's life - as well as the life of his childhood friend, Diederik, played as an adult by Jeroen Perceval, who has also grown up in the organization - is fitted right in the center of the film, giving you enough long-distance aftermath before revealing itself. It also allows for plenty of story after its revealed to continue its build towards a staggering conclusion.
Roskam creates a dreamlike quality in Bullhead, providing shots that almost appear to be giving us a view of the world through Jacky's hazy and uncertain point of view. Roskam certainly likes to rile the character up, and red surrounds this "bull" at more than a few inopportune moments. The director's usage of color also creates a feeling of film noir, the aesthetics of that sub-genre used here to tell a character driven tragedy. It's all the more dreamlike in that it's a world few American audiences are familiar with, the illegal meat industry in Belgium.
Roskam never allows his film to become too convoluted or inaccessible. He keeps you firmly invested in the workings of the organization - two bumbling mechanics and the murder of a federal officer are the catalyst for the series of misfortunes that befall the characters - while allowing you to focus on Jacky's personal story. The director handles it all perfectly, even finding room for a "lost love" side-plot.
Even fleeting moments of levity show up here and there in Bullhead. Those two mechanics provide much of the comedy relief, some of which feels too forced for its own good. The bickering and the idiocy gets tired quickly. It's a necessary element to the film's structure. The whole thing can't be a steady, somber tone through and through. The characters provide a pivotal point to the overall story, as well, so the humor they project is buffered by the weight of the story. Still, less of it could have been beneficial.
As unpredictable as its central character, Bullhead is a powerhouse drama that resonates, that leaves you breathless and wanting more both from its writer/director and star. Roskam depicts a world we haven't seen put to film before and gives us one of the great, modern, tragic figures. It's a fate not created out of his own doing, but out of this uncontrollable world he was born into. Schoenaerts holds the character together, bringing out a true feeling of sympathy while still impressing a power of the other character in this world. He's a bull in a china shop where you don't want anything to break. It's a world where you know, inevitably, something has to do just that, and that makes the outcome all the more distressing.
Jeremy's Rating: 9 out of 10
Bullhead opens this weekend in New York, Los Angeles, and Austin.