By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) -
Recently, the trend among Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film nominees is to include a wildcard-type film among what was starting to become a predictably homogenous and safe annual field (before, the majority of voters with the kind of time and access to watch enough possibilities for nomination were elderly, retired NY/LA types). Since the Academy handed the control of a few shortlist slots to a panel handpicked for their expertise, a handful of artistically and thematically challenging films like Dogtooth and The Milk of Sorrow have begun to sneak in. This year’s equivalent is Belgium’s entry- Bullhead.
Dogtooth: probably not your Grandma’s kind of movie
The film focuses on a young cattle farmer named Jacky Vanmarsenille, who pumps himself full of steroids and growth hormones nearly as much as he does his cattle. His story begins when he gets involved in a deal with the (based on real life) Hormone Mafia and encounters a reminder of a terrible event from his childhood. This, and a tangentially related murder of a hormone inspector, put him on a short, dark path to his fate.
The film plays out almost like a Greek tragedy, but instead of hubris sewing the seeds of his downfall, Jack’s weakness is testosterone (in more ways than just the obvious, but I’ll leave you to discover that on your own). Jacky is an adolescent trapped in a heavyweight’s body, a big dumb bull battering his way through a life that he is ill-equipped to properly understand or navigate.
All Gary Sinise would hear is “Kill Me!” Of course, that’s all Gary Sinise ever hears
First time writer/director Michael Roskam takes his compelling idea and builds a beautiful, terrible world around it. The wide shots of the Belgian countryside that he compiles are as unsettling as they are gorgeous, and they’re far from the only directorial trick he has up his sleeve. But, it’s lead actor Matthias Schoenaerts that is the true breakout here. The massive amount of muscle he put on for the role may bring to mind Tom Hardy’s ostentatious, brilliant turn in Bronson, but his performance is the antithesis of that. Schoenaerts lets all of the pent-up rage, desire, confusion, and even tenderness ripple underneath Jacky’s skin. The result is a marvel of less-is-more acting, even more so than Gary Oldman’s higher profile use of the same concept in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Bullhead has another, less flattering, parallel to that film. This movie is slow-burning to the point that a large breath could snuff it out. Tinker Tailor redeems this to a large extent with a stunning final sequence that ties together the plot. Bullhead is less fortunate, although the ending isn’t bad. It just isn’t enough to overcome the meandering script, and some poor editing choices just muddy the water.
On the plus side, you honestly don’t really need to follow the Hormone Mafia subplot all that closely. It doesn’t really add much if anything outside of introducing us to several French-speaking dolts that double as comic relief. I was amused to learn this was intentional and that this is pretty much what the Flemish Belgians think of their Francophone countryment:
Still, I’m not sure how that all fits in with the plot and tone, exactly.
Matthias Schoenaert’s towering performance as Jacky overshadows his fellow cast mates and the problematic script, but if you grab a couple of beers and focus on his character, Bullhead is well worth the watch.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time you see meat
Take a Drink: whenever you see a steroid or one is mentioned
Drink a Shot: every time Jacky acts strange around a woman