Directed by: Michael R. Roskam.
Written by: Michael R. Roskam.
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts (Jacky Vanmarsenille), Jeroen Perceval (Diederik Maes), Jeanne Dandoy (Lucia Schepers), Barbara Sarafian (Eva Forrestier), Tibo Vandenborre (Antony De Greef), Frank Lammers (Sam Raymond), Robin Valvekens (Jonge Jacky Vanmarsenille).
The Belgian film, Bullhead, is a really good, complex character study buried underneath an overly convoluted, yet standard plot. You probably never wanted to know as much about the so called “hormone mafia” as Bullhead tells you. Yet if you can get beyond the rather uninteresting, and standard, crime story and concentrate on the central character, Jacky, and the great performance by actor Matthias Schoenaerts, you may end up being drawn into the film like I was. I have a feeling that the only reason why the movie wasn’t called Raging Bull, was because that title was already taken.
When we first meet Jacky, he seems like a typical lug of a mafia enforcer. He lives on his family beef farm, where they inject their cows with lots of hormones to make them grow bigger, faster, and hence make them more money. Surprisingly, this is a rather cutthroat business, with lots of competition, and a cop who is trying very hard to stop this illegal practice. We learn early on that this cop has been gunned down – and that a BMW is a key clue that the cops need. And that BMW is now in the hands of two bumbling idiot mechanics – who sell the tires to Jacky’s brother. We know that by the end of the movie, all of this will eventually become relevant in some way – just like we know that whatever it is that happened between Jacky and Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), that makes them shoot daggers at each other with their eyes, will become clear. And eventually it does, when the movie flashes back to Jacky’s childhood, which causes us to revaluate everything we have seen to that point – and will affect the long, slow spiral into despair and violence that takes place in the films second half.
When the movie focuses on Jacky himself, it is an effective character study. He is a mainly quiet man prone to violent outbursts that he cannot control. He holds his cards close to the vest – saying much more with the hatred in his eyes when he looks at Diederik, or later, the longing in his eyes when he looks at the beautiful Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy). We know from the earliest scenes in the movie that he is hiding something – that all those muscles are overcompensation for something that ends up quite literally to be missing. When we find out what he is hiding, his entire character snaps into focus. This is a man who is quietly imploding on the inside, as he is externally exploding. It is a great, subtle performance by Schoenaerts who does a great job with a hard role.
The film was written and directed by first timer Michael R. Roskam. It is a fine debut – hell how many people can say their first feature was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. But it also seems like a film by a first timer – as Roskam tries to cram too much into one movie. The bizarre, convoluted crime drama, which some strange comedic touches that don’t work, wasn’t necessary in this film. In the character of Jacky, he had everything he needed to make a great movie. When he matures a little, I hope Roskam figures out that sometimes less is more.