Written by: Victoria Alexander | February 15th, 2012
Like Tom Hardy in BRONSON, Matthias Schoenaerts gives a riveting, magnetic star making performance in this twist-turning gangster tale with a highly unusual backstory.
BULLHEAD intimately reveals the lives of Dutch-speaking cattle farmers living in Limburg, Belgium and their cultural adversaries, the French-speaking Belgians. To fully make sense of BULLHEAD, background is required. I’ve done the research for you.
“Belgium has a population of 11 million, split into the Dutch-speaking Flemings, who make up 60 percent of the population and live mainly in the north, and the southern French-speaking Walloons, who make up 40 percent of the population. Language is the fundamental flaw at the core of Belgium’s existential crisis, taking on the role that race, religion or ethnicity play in other conflict-riven societies. The country operates on the basis of linguistic apartheid, which infects everything from public libraries to local and regional government, the education system, the political parties, national television, the newspapers, even soccer teams.”
Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts) works with his uncle on the family’s cattle farm in a Dutch speaking province of Belgium. He is addicted to steroids and other illegal enhancement drugs. He is beautifully sculptured, but seething with rage.
If Jacky is not in a scene, you are waiting for him to turn up.
In flashbacks we see that the Vanmarsenilles have been using illegal hormones to speed up the growth of their cattle for a long time. Looks like Jacky has been helping himself a tad too much to the goods – “Lesson number two: Don’t get high on the cattle’s supply”.
The Vanmarsenilles vet wants Jacky to supply beef to a big Flanders hormone trafficker, Marc Decuyper (Sam Louwyck). Decuyper had a cop investigating his illegal business killed and now wants a slight-of-hand legitimate business as a cover. Jacky does not want to do business with Decuyper but meets with him anyhow. He hasn’t seen Decuyper’s right-hand man, Diederik Maes (Joroen Perceval), since childhood. Something very bad happened to them.
Decuyper got French-speaking car mechanics from Walloon to ditch the cop’s car. Acknowledging the acrimonious nature of the country’s people, the mechanics are The Three Stooges of BULLHEAD. They have stripped the car of its tires and sold them to Jacky’s brother. The tires will lead the police straight to Jacky.
While BULLHEAD exposes the dangerous and illegal practice of hormones and chemicals given to cattle and the “mafia-like” industry it has spawned (thank God I have been a vegetarian my whole life), the strength of the film is the complexity of the characters. What is troubling Jacky? Why is he going through life like an angry ghost?
And when you find out what happened to Jacky as a young boy and the consequences, you are horrified and wonder how he has lived his life for the past twenty years.
No one in BULLHEAD is redeemable. Even if you want to feel sorry for Jacky, he’s involved in a disgraceful practice of poisoning people with hormone-stacked meat.
In Europe, using growth hormones on cattle is illegal. Here, five types of growth hormones are legal to be used on cattle! In 2005, 32.5 million cattle were slaughtered to provide beef for U.S. consumers. Scientists believe about two-thirds of American cattle raised for slaughter are injected with hormones to make them grow faster. America’s dairy cows are given a genetically-engineered hormone called rBGH to increase milk production.
BULLHEAD’s writer and director, Michaël R. Roskam, has a singular personal vision. Watching BULLHEAD was similar to my introduction to Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian-Kazakh director of NIGHT WATCH (2004). And like Bekmambetov, who has gone on to direct the Hollywood hit WANTED (2008) and this year’s highly anticipated ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, Roskam is destined to be Hollywood’s newest foreign acquisition.
Roskam is a powerful director with a hard-edged philosophical view of life. He does not indulge his characters or even feels the need to explain their behavior. A gangster movie with a strong emphasis on the inner life of its central character, BULLHEAD is ordinary and daring at the same time.
Schoenaerts gained 27 kilos (59.5 lbs.) to play Jacky. It was necessary since Jacky’s physical transformation is a key plot point and expresses his wounded psychological state of mind. Instead of being a display of provocation and menace, his muscle-laden physique is his armor.
The cinematography by Nicholas Karakatsanis assists in visually bringing Roskam’s vision to the screen. The dark, foreboding countryside is not idyllic cow pastures. You feel the cold, wind, and rain.
BULLHEAD (Belgium) was one of the 63 films submitted for the Best Foreign Language Film category in the 84th Academy Awards. It is now in competition with MONSIEUR LAZHAR (Canada), A SEPARATION (Iran), FOOTNOTE (Israel) and IN DARKNESS (Poland).
Victoria’s weekly column, “The Devil’s Hammer,” is posted every Monday.http://www.fromthebalcony.com/editorials.php. If you would like to be included on Victoria’s private distribution list for a weekly preview, just email her at email@example.com.
Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email. You can contact Victoria directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.