CPH:PIX Film Festival: Bullhead
Dir. Michael R. Roskam. Savage Film, 2011
Garnering an Oscar nomination and buzz on the film festival circuit, this magnificently stylistic Belgian crime drama rolls onto Denmark’s shores like a boisterous bull in a china shop.
Set in the various farmlands of Belgium, a hotheaded cattle farmer goes into corrupt business with a West-Flemish beef trader. A recipe for disaster; the allies, along with a series of menacing cohorts, fail to keep a lid on the proceedings when things start to boil over and the consequences prove fatal.
Starting off as a bull-dosing patriarch of a local Belgium cattle-farming family, Jacky’s rash actions and scary demeanor have the makings of a perfect anti-hero. Difficult and seemingly irrational, Roskam turns the story completely on its head via a painful to watch, and no doubt painful to experience, flashback halfway through the film, exploiting the reasons for his animosity. From here on in, Jacky’s fiery character and actions are given a motive, making him an unlikely hero of this idiosyncratic crime drama.
Central to the film’s acclaim is the powerhouse performance of Matthias Schoenaerts as no-nonsense cattleprodder Jacky. When it comes to meaty leading man parts in cinema, it’s difficult to look past the camel-hump biceps of Ferrigno, Schwarzenegger and Stallone to roles that pack a punch on an emotional as well as a visceral level. Taking a supposed two years to beef up before filming, Schoenaerts is an effortlessly absorbing, muted presence in Bullhead. Acting almost solely through intense expressions and body language, it’s a primal performance that leaves Ryan ‘smug-mug’ Gosling’s turn in Drive totaled by the roadside, crying uncontrollably and writing a nammy pammy pop song about the whole experience. Probably.
The other unquestionable star of the film is its writer and director, Michael R. Roskam. With Bullhead only his debut feature, he has a surprising ability to generate an inexplicable tension and anxiety in the audience, pushing us into unexpected territories and making the timely plot turns all the more rewarding and refreshing. As much as a discovery of an interesting new filmmaker, Bullhead premieres a talented newcomer in cinematographer, Nicolas Karakatsanis, whose expressive and luscious interpretation of rural Belgium juxtaposes with the ugly characters that slug it out in the seedy storyline.
If there’s one criticism one could pass down on Bullhead, it is that, over the case of two hours, Roskam might be attempting too much. Part crime drama-cum-Mafioso movie-cum-unrequited love tale, the director also comments on the cultural divide of Belgium; from the French speaking, buffoonish south to the humble, Flemish Flanders region of the north. Although these weighty ideas aren’t granted the time they deserve, even attempting such controversial issues are an example of a director who is able to tackle difficult, universal subjects through gripping roots’ stories.
The bottom line, Bullhead is a ferocious film. Embodying a raw animalism that is fearsome, entertaining and leaves you floored. Just like a Stone Cold Stunner.