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Occasionally a film comes along with such a mesmerizing performance by the cast or its star that dropped off the radar from most people that seeing it on video makes it a revelation of sorts. Such is the case with Bullhead, the feature film debut of Belgian director Michael Roskam, starring Matthias Schoenaerts (Black Book), the second collaboration of the two, the first being the 2005 short film "The One Thing To Do."
The feature debut makes for a different setting than other films, Belgian or not. Written by Roskam as well, Schoenaerts plays Jacky Vanmarsenille, a Belgian cattle farmer who quietly hulks around competitors and takes steroids almost without abandon. Jacky becomes involved in a business relationship with a dealer whose main business focus is hormones and steroids for cattle. A police officer looking into the dealer is killed while investigating, and the increased focus, combined with the separate reintroductions of a childhood friend turned possible police informant and a girl Jacky admired, slowly turn the screws of pressure on Jacky and his business acquaintances.
The big talking point of the film has to be Schoenaerts' transformation into the role, one where he gained almost 60 pounds of bulk, thanks in part to eating more than 2,400 cans of tuna as part of the process. In addition, he donned some slight facial prosthetics to inhabit the massive Jacky. Yet for his imposing look (and to be sure, he is), there is a certain sort of insecurity that he manages to possess. This is largely due to a series of flashbacks that show Jacky as a youth and eventually illustrate just why he has to take steroids. When Jacky interacts with the girl (now working at a fragrance story in town), Jacky's awkwardness around women is as it was when he was a boy. He tries to process this on his own, sometimes by spending time in his room shadowboxing. In the supplements, Roskam likens this time Jacky spends by himself similar to Bruce Wayne's bat cave, and to a degree I can understand why. Jacky's development is stunted, and the hormones do not help. He feeds these hormones to his cattle as well, one of the only things he feels some sort of connection to. Yet therein lies a problem.
The more Bullhead goes on, the more it would seem to be the fascination and time spent with Jacky overshadows the story itself. Jacky's female interactions are stilted and awkward, and sad in a way, yet none of it is overly memorable. The investigation into the policeman's death flirts with moments of a soap opera. The men behind the deals are ominous though hardly fearsome. If anything, Jacky's unpredictability lends more to him being menacing than these members of the Belgian 'hormone mafia' even when he isn't there, which is symptomatic of how infatuated everyone involved with Schoenaerts' performance might be. Even a weird swerve where a police informant hints at a possible homosexual relationship with one of the detectives is more for sensationalism than anything else.
To be fair, the moments where the smaller stories leave some moments of confusion, but they do not severely impact the film. They merely hamper it to being a 'good' film rather than an 'excellent' one. With more films under his belt one would anticipate Roskam to overcome these cinematic growing pains, but in the meantime, marveling at the work Schoenaerts does in the role of Jacky will leave you wondering what both men will do for an encore.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Bullhead is given an AVC-encoded 2.35:1 widescreen presentation that looks better than I expected for the disc. Film grain is evident through viewing, but when looking a bit further, things like moisture on ceramic tile and water beads are evident when it comes to image detail. The film is not a bright one by any means, but the action which occurs in the dark holds up well with deep blacks providing a nice contrast when called upon. The color palette is not a varied one but is reproduced nicely for the disc, and proves to be better than expected.
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround rules the day, and the overall result here is another pleasant surprise. Dialogue is firm in the center channel and is well-balanced through the feature. There is a sequence in a club in the second act which gives the track a chance to show off the low-end with subwoofer involvement and music that sounds clear and broad over the soundstage, and in quieter sequences a BMW pulling into a parking garage emits a clear low rumble when in first gear, and the rain around it sounding gently immersive through the channels. Image has put together a decent disc from a technical vantage point.
Along with the technical qualities, Image has a nice package of supplements on the disc. Tangibly, there is a reversible cover for the disc but moving further, a 16-page booklet for the film is included, a mix of images from the picture and praise from Udo Kier and Michael Mann, the latter of whom labels the film as a 'masterpiece' no less. High praise indeed. A code for a redeemable digital copy follows.
The disc extras aren't bad either. Save for a making of piece on the film (21:58) which was filmed during the production, all of the extras are in English, starting with a commentary from Roskam. The track starts off fairly quiet, but as Roskam gets more involved with the help of the DVD producer, he covers the small quirks in language between Flemish and French languages (asshole and bullet hole are remarkably similar sounding, but not so much upon reflection), and he spots the actors that he worked with on the film and provides brief biographic information to boot. It is a decent track overall once it gets going. The making of touches on Schoenaerts' transformation in the movies and how it impacted him physically and emotionally, and the boy who plays the younger Jacky is given some attention also, along with some other members of the supporting cast, and even some on-set goofing around to boot. A nice segment. Separate interviews with Roskam (11:48) and Schoenaerts (6:33) discuss the film in additional detail, and a short film from Roskam which starred Schoenaerts titled "The One Thing to Do" (25:11) is next. The trailer (1:46) completes things.
Seemingly coming out of nowhere to grab a Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, there is some merit to the case Bullhead attempts to make, I just do not think it is a convincing one past the performance of its protagonist. Technically the disc does justice to the film and from a supplements perspective has as much, if not more, on it than titles from studios seem to have these days. The film is definitely worthy of your time as a rental with a consideration to buy based on Schoenaerts' performance alone.