Editor’s note: This review was originally published as part of our Fantastic Fest 2011 coverage on October 16, 2011. But because this bonafide FSR favorite is hitting limited theaters this Friday, February 17, we’ve decided to re-post so that more of you can get intrigued by this modern masterpiece.
Fantastic Fest is always my favorite week of the year. The lineup is jam-packed with great films, many that have already garnered buzz on the internet or at other festivals, but plenty more that I’ve heard nothing about. Every year I’m surprised by some films and completely blown away by others. This year, I was surprised and blown away by the same film, Michael Roskam’s Bullhead.
If I told you that Bullhead is a brooding character study that would be true. If I told you that Bullhead tells a story about Belgium’s illegal hormone trade, the mafia that moves the chemicals, and the beef farmed from the animals injected with those chemicals that would be true too. But I doubt either of those facts would make you want to see this film. I’ll admit that it sounds boring and a tad ridiculous. It’s not. It’s an engaging, intelligent and powerful film that sticks with you.
As I said, the film is essentially a character study and the character in question is Jacky Vanmarsenille. Jacky is a stocky brute of a man with bulging biceps and a face like a boxer. He looks like a guy who’s gotten in too many fights over the years, fights he most likely started, and his face has paid the price for it. He’s inherited the family business, raising cattle for beef. And just like his father before him, he relies on illegal hormones supplied through mafia connections to raise bigger, fatter cattle quicker than nature could. When the possibility of a deal with a new supplier comes up, Jacky is skeptical but takes the meeting anyway, running into an old friend named Diederik in the process. But there’s more to this story than we know and as we gradually discover the significance of Jacky’s old friend, his present-day world starts to crumble.
The story unfolds in non-linear fashion, with simple yet brilliant storytelling. We jump between present day and an important event that happened decades ago, but only a few times. It’s not overdone and it’s not confusing, it’s just enough to slowly reveal important information that changes the way the Jacky character is perceived and understood by the audience. It’s subtle but draws parallels and connections, making the beef and hormone plot lines more meaningful. It is a great example of a filmmaker choosing a storytelling technique that enhances and compliments the narrative.
Matthias Schoenaerts is a revelation in the role of Jacky. He plays the role with just the right amount of faux confidence, insecurity and underlying hurt, no easy feat. Jacky is a complicated character who communicates much of his emotional state silently and Schoenaerts is more than up to the task, effortlessly drawing us into the character and subsequently the story. We get brief glimpses of Jacky in his bedroom, an empty, sterile room where he shadowboxes naked. It’s obvious that this is him at his most vulnerable though it’s never explicitly stated. Roskam trusts the audience to pick up on what’s his putting on screen without having to beat them over the head with it. These are some of the most well-shot scenes of the entire film, which is saying something in a film as good looking overall as this one is. Roskam and DP Nicolas Karakatsanis light and frame the film with sure hands, creating a gritty, realistic look with at least the appearance of a lot of natural sunlight. The scenes of Jacky shadowboxing in silhouette are particularly great examples of that.
Bullhead is an amazing film without any context whatsoever. But it is an even more astounding achievement given that it is writer/director Michael Roskam’s first feature film. It feels like it was made by a more experienced, seasoned director. In particular, Roskam manages to get great performances from his child actors. Directing children is almost always difficult and had to have been even more difficult given that so much of the film’s emotional impact comes in the kids’ scenes. The crux of the film’s emotional weight hung squarely on the shoulders of three young kids and Robin Valvekens (young Jacky), Baudoin Wolwertz (young Diederik), and David Murgia (young Bruno) all delivered intense and realistic performances that helped turn a good film into a great film.
The Upside: The film is flat out incredible and the accomplishment is all the more impressive given that it’s Roskam’s feature film debut. Possibly the biggest upside of the whole experience is that we (hopefully) have many more films from Roskam to anxiously await.
The Downside: The film does start to fizzle just a bit at the very end, but what’s come before is so powerful that it almost doesn’t matter. Bonus points for the last scenes also including some impressive experimental and stylized framing and camera work, despite allowing the narrative to unravel slightly.
On the Side: Despite the release of a new film by acclaimed Belgian filmmakers the Dardennes brothers, Bullhead is Belgium’s official entry to this year’s Oscars.