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Review: ‘Bullhead’

Belgium Oscar Nominee Packs Powerful Punch

Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts) in

Credit: Drafthouse Films

Above: Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts) in "Bullhead."

I missed reviewing "Bullhead" (which opened March 16 and has been held over at the Reading Gaslamp Stadium 15 Theaters) because I was at WonderCon but I'm glad to catch up with it now.

Like the main character, the film "Bullhead" looks all macho and pumped up on steroids but underneath there's something genuinely vulnerable and heartbreaking. The film opens with a narrator telling us that there are events that happen in one's life that you just can't escape -- you may think you are in the clear and have left them in the past but they come back and haunt you. Michaël R. Roskam's "Bullhead" has at its center a horrific event that colors and scars two lives.

At first glance, "Bullhead," which was a Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee for Belgium for 2011, looks like a European gangster film. But that's just the first of its misdirections. The illegal drug being trafficked in is not heroin or meth but rather hormones used by farmers on cattle to make them bigger faster. These gangsters are known as "the hormone mafia" and they supply cattle ranchers with shots that will allow them to speed up the rate a cow matures and can be brought to market. But again this proves to be a misdirection just like Hitchcock's old MacGuffin.

The real story involves Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Diederik Maes (Jeroen Perceval), childhood friends whose paths cross again. It's not until well into the film that a childhood flashback recounts a pivotal and brutal moment in their lives, a moment that changed both of them but especially Jacky.

I don't want to say any more because the film succeeds in part because it surprises you with its turn of events. It starts as a crime thriller but develops into something more emotionally complex.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Drafthouse Films


Like the recent Australian gangster film "Animal Kingdom," it draws a parallel between the characters and the base instincts of the animal world. Both depict worlds in which the weak can easily be destroyed and you need to be either smart or strong to survive. So there's a lot of macho strutting around and violence to prove a point or assert dominance. But the natural order of things in Roskam's film get disrupted and tweaked by two things: an act of horrific cruelty (which I have to say left me a bit queasy) and the introduction of hormone shots that Jacky takes. The point at which Roskam reveals these elements is the point at which the film switches gears and becomes less a gangster thriller and more a character study of Jacky and to a lesser degree Diederik.

"Bullhead" is a well-crafted film that builds slowly and confidently. Roskam, who also wrote the film, knows how to play his elements and how to switch gears. He also knows how to get to real and complex emotions after setting us up for a genre film. His cast, especially the two leads, are superb. Neither of the characters played by Schoenaerts and Perceval, are admirable and yet the actors find a humanity and honesty in them that makes us care. The film also suggests that it's impossible to know someone or judge someone without having all the facts.

"Bullhead" (rated R for some strong violence, language and sexual content and in Dutch and French with English subtitles) is a powerful and riveting film, and one that will stay with you in effective but not always comfortable ways. Be warned, however, the violence in this film is disturbing but not because it is graphic but rather because it is entirely unmotivated and shockingly cruel. It is also exceedingly well done in the context of the story.

Companion viewing: "Animal Kingdom," "Bronson," "A Prophet"

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