(Belgium and France, 2012)
8-14 February; DCA
Bullhead is the 2012 Academy Award nominated film by Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam. His other works include Carlos (2004), winner of the Audience Award at Leuven International Short Film Festival, and Today is Friday (2007) an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short, one act play of the same title.
Bullhead stars Matthias Schoenaerts as Jacky Vanmarsenille; a pumped- up, steroid-fuelled cattle farmer with a traumatic past. The plot follows Jacky as he enters into a black market deal with Mafia sorts within the beef industry. After a police officer is murdered, the police authorities begin to suspect Jacky’s involvement and the story begins to unfold. The premise is simple enough. Yet without giving too much away, first impressions are deceptive. To judge Bullhead as a “good” or a “bad” film is perhaps beside the point. It is instead useful then to consider the film as Janus-faced.
One face comprises of the shady deal, the murdered policeman and the unleashing of a chain of events, played out to the film’s conclusion; the other gives context to the character of Jacky. Upon watching the first half hour, where the deal and murder unfolds, one could be forgiven for thinking that Roskam has just made a pseudo-mafia flick with a dire storyline. This is further suggested by the quite frankly terrible performances of numerous minor characters and extras; even Matthias’s interpretation of Jacky – the lumbering, juiced up cattle farmer, appears more like one of the cows he farms than a black market dealer. The musical score, by relatively unknown composer Raf Keunen, tends towards the melodramatic; the film’s slow moving, though often beautifully shot cinematography, jars with the storyline. Everything seems so incongruent and awkward that Bullhead gives the appearance of being just a really badly made film. Yet this is perhaps Roskam’s greatest strength; by deliberately creating such tensions and juxtapositions, he hides the underpinning horror of the whole.
The other Bullhead begins with the first of several flashbacks into Jacky’s childhood. It is here that Roskam reveals that the events of the first part of the film are really only a supplement to Jacky’s tragic childhood. This concealment of the truth from the audience is essential to the story’s success. As Roskam forces Jacky to face the demons he has been hiding from, the audience undergoes a similar awful understanding to the significance of Jacky’s suffering. All of this rests on the singularly outstanding performance by Matthias as the vulnerable boy hidden within a hulking man’s body.
In terms of the subject matter, this is a very dark, difficult and disturbing story. Yet for many people facing issues of a comparable nature to those of the protagonist, the examination of personal consequences and their social implications is of huge significance. Bullhead may provide society a clearer understanding of such sufferings, and particularly the consequences all too often left hid under the cover of silence. Though male viewers in particular may feel a sense of nausea, all viewers will be confronted with a bleak and terrible account of the horrendous ordeal of a child, and the irreversible consequences that follow into adulthood. On reflection, one must state the obvious: in a tale such as this, there can be no happy ending.