'Bullhead' Overpowers Viewers
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"Bullhead" is a stunning debut that finds gripping tragedy and bleak humor in a story of crime and punishment, anchored by an Oscar-level lead performance that's part "Raging Bull" and part "Oedipus Rex." There are several factors working together to make Michael Roskam's first movie as fascinating and gripping as it is, a quality reflected in its unlikely Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.
The first is that it pulls us into a world of crime that's unlike any we've seen before. It's the Belgian "hormone mafia," a cabal of famers and criminals who work to use synthetic hormones to get cattle to market faster and bigger despite the illegality of such methods, and we see it in action and under pressure, as a local cop investigating the case has been killed. Meat, here, is worth murder; it's a vegetarian's nightmare and a capitalist's dream.
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The second is an element of Greek tragedy combined with modern science: We learn that Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts in a performance whose emotional and physical requirements are daunting), a middleman in the local hormone mafia, was injured as a youth by a bully. Due to the nature of the injury, he's been taking hormones to ensure he develops as a man, and could be getting high on his own supply. Jacky is bulky and broody and, yes, bullheaded -- he's strong and stubborn and wounded, literally addicted to his own ideas of masculinity.
"Bullhead" has a strong, Scorsese-style sense of God and destiny and punishment. It's a "coincidence" that Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), the middleman for the larger crime ring, is also the childhood friend who failed to help when Jacky was beaten and mutilated. A crucified Jesus spouts location-appropriate stigmata at one point, to underline. The film's obsessed with destiny, and so is Jacky: The past isn't dead -- isn't even past -- and the echoes of what fathers and sons did years ago are present in every tense present-tense moment here.
But the final and best thing about "Bullhead" is how it weaves those factors together, building a world full of complex characters with both tension and humor, tragedy and comedy. When the hormone mafia meets for a meal, it's a mouthwatering meat-and-potatoes dish served with a flourish before they divide up their territories and responsibilities. As Jacky goes to a cologne counter to make small talk with the sales girl (Jeanne Dandoy), his hulking mass is so pent up with frustration and shuddering breath that you don't know whether he's going to eat her or sexually assault her.
Schoenaerts has been working since 1992, but this performance puts him on the map with indelible power. Jacky's size is scary, but in many ways so is his brain: He's more cool and collected than you'd think, when he isn't freaking out. It's a punishingly physical performance, and Roskam (along with cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis and editor Alain Dessauvage) shoots it for maximum effect.
"Bullhead" isn't perfect. Roskam has said in interviews that he thinks of himself as a painter, and some of his more bold brushstrokes sweep over what could be helpful details. (For example, it would help us better understand the stakes on the table if we knew just how much money was at play here; we never hear, in simple dollars, or euros, what the farmers pay for the hormones, or the savings created by using them.)
Still, the film undeniably creates a world -- one shaped by the food writing and philosophy of Michael Pollan as much as it is by the films of Martin Scorsese. It's got a touch of David Simon's dark observation from "The Wire" that crime makes you stupid. And watching Schoenaerts be Jacky in that world is magnificent. You aren't what you eat; you're what you did, what you do, what was done to you. "Bullhead" is a fierce slab of filmmaking served sizzling hot, but at the center it's ice-cold and bloody.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.