Bullhead
Other // R // February 17, 2012
Review by Jason Bailey | posted February 16, 2012
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The trailers for Bullhead, Flemish writer/director Michael R. Roskam's debut feature (and a nominee for Best Foreign Film at this year's Oscars), place its thriller angle center stage--it dwells in the murky "hormone mafia underworld" (direct quote), in which livestock are illegally juiced by farmers and meat magnates to get bigger, faster. But Roskam is pulling a bit of a fast one; the crime stuff is almost entirely window dressing for the odd and personal story at the core of the picture.

The more pressing concern is Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts), a muscled-up family cattle farmer who, it is slowly and carefully revealed, has a very specific and personal interest in hormone injections. He is courted by a local meat kingpin, De Kuyper (Sam Louwyck), but Jacky is hesitant to get involved, particularly because a cop investigating hormone trafficking has recently been murdered. That killing, its specifics, and the police investigation of it provide additional flash; this is a busy story, filled with footnotes and sidebars that don't always add up. But the density of the narrative makes the film at least superficially richer, even if it does take a bit of time to get straight who's who, who's done what, and why. (I suspect that this, like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is a film that requires a second viewing for the sake of clarity.)

Ultimately, this is Jacky's story, told with a fluidity of time and an unflinching proximity. Schoenaerts is a giant, terrifying actor, but he conveys a vulnerability that contradicts his massive physical presence; you're not always sure exactly what he's doing, and he doesn't always do the right thing, but he is a figure of tremendous audience sympathy (and curiosity). Schoenaerts never plays for that sympathy, however; in retrospect, it's not entirely clear how he manages to put across a personality, since the performance seems so singularly opaque. I think it has to do with his rhythms; everything he says and does is just a beat or so behind everyone else, giving us a sense that he's constantly thinking, constantly considering, and often regretting.

Roskam adopts a grimy aesthetic that unifies well with the picture's ultimately nihilistic world view (the introductory voice-over ends with the bon mot "You're always fucked," which isn't the cheeriest opening salvo). He's got a simple, unassuming style, most scenes played straight down the middle, but punctuated by bursts of cold, brutal violence. If he's guilty of occasionally leaving audiences in the dark, he provides a helpful (and stylish) filling-in-the-blanks section to kick off the film's final quarter, and with those questions answered, the closing sequences unfold with a heavy heart and sad inevitability, yet with a sustained urgency as well. The final moments intertwine the past and the present wistfully, and the closing mood is a bit more bittersweet than expected. Bullhead wanders a bit, and it could have used a bit of tightening, pace-wise. But it provides an ideal showcase for an exciting new filmmaker and an accomplished actor worth keeping an eye on.



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