James Reviews Michael Roskam’s Bullhead [Fantastic Fest 2011 Review]

Bullhead opens in select cities this Friday, February 17th, through Drafthouse Films. Read more information here.

When you think about crime films, usually you don’t think of Belgium. I personally do, but that’s because I love the film In Bruges. But also, when you think of a crime film, one doesn’t think about the criminal underground trading of growth hormones, especially when it comes to cattle. But this is one of the pieces of the film Bullhead from director Michael Roskam. A film that I will say right from the beginning of this review deserves a Criterion edition. As you can see, I kind of dug the film so if you don’t want to read the next few paragraphs, just know it’s a positive one.

Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a young Limburg cattle farmer working on his family’s farm, attempting to make a shady deal with a crooked veterinarian for some new hormones that will help the cows grow even bigger and not be able to be traced whatsoever. A long term profit deal that could help the family is stalled by Jacky, who has a bad feeling about it in general. This is because these new business partners have been implicated in the murder of a cop who was investigating the distribution of illegal hormones. While this is all going on, Jacky is recalling a time in his life where everything changed for him. There’s a darker and sadder reason why Jacky is also as big and lumbering as the cattle he takes care of, a tragedy that befalls him at the age of 12. He not only loses a vital part of him, but one of his best friends Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) is lost. That is until he comes back into his life unexpectedly.

The reason I’m being coy on a bit of the plot is because it’s vital to be surprised, especially with this day and age of spoilers. This is a case where taking the film as a whole is more important than knowing a few of the key plot points because characters will make that much more sense as the film unfolds in front of you. Bullhead ultimately rests on the shoulders of our protagonist Jacky, and Schoenarts is up for the task. He does more with subtle glances, a few lines of dialogue that tends to not go above a whisper (but when he does yell, it takes you by surprise) and an intensity that is housed in this gigantic body, that he keeps attempting to add more muscle on to it any chance he gets. He is an animal, like the cattle he raises, and he knows this is a truth. He is trying to do right by his family, but has all these inner demons he doesn’t know what to do with and we as the audience see him trying to cope with it all.

The film begins with Jacky, hulking and quiet, getting out of his car and walking toward a farmer and he just intimidates him, with a few smacks and this piercing stare. You’re not sure what level of violence is going to go down there, but when he walks away, breathing heavily and throwing down some sort of drug, we know this man is an enforcer, but to what end? It’s not until the whole arc of the story comes into play, especially the flashback to his past as a child we get to know Jacky and why he is the way he is today. And what makes the case that much more perfect is that Roksam got an equally great performance out of a child actor, Robin Valvekens, who gives heart, youth and a vibrancy that is so real. It’s only when the tragic events that occur to him occur that we just can’t help but wish we could have whisked him away and given him a proper childhood.

Roksom gives us a film that isn’t just a typical crime film. He takes a real life occurrence with themes of impotence, betrayal of loyalty, sprinkles in just enough humor to lighten the load when the heavy stuff comes pummeling you from all sides, just like Jacky would. And having a cast of characters with their own agendas, especially Diederik, who is trying to atone for his sin against Jacky. But the less said about the actual betrayal, the better. It’s Jeroen Perceval’s performance which is a great counterpoint to Schoenaerts’. As someone who turned his back on his best friend at an impressionable age, his arc is as important as Jacky’s, and we see them co-existing at this time, over 20 years later, and coming to grips with what had happened earlier in their lives. It’s quite interesting stuff, and that’s what puts this film above other crime films, and that’s the human aspect of our main characters.

It makes perfect sense that this is the film Belgium has chosen to submit Bullhead for consideration to the Academy Awards. This being Roskam’s feature film debut is a bit of a revelation; another first time director who has hit it out of the park, which fits in perfectly with some recent Criterion releases, such as Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. With a star making performance from a transformed Matthias Schoenaerts (reminiscent of Tom Hardy in Bronson) and a script that is taken from true crime stories going on in Belgium, you have a film that is a classic in the making. Mark my words, Bullhead is a film that must be seen as soon as you possibly can.