Bullhead sees cattle farmer, Jacky Varnmarsenille, make an underhand deal with a mafia-affiliated beef trader, which he lives to regret after the suspicious murder of a federal agent. Set in rural Belgium and spoken almost entirely in Flemish, Bullhead predominantly documents the inner conflict of Jacky who, 20 years after a childhood traumatic event, still struggles to come to terms with the repercussions, which he makes up for with a steady diet of steroids and pills.
Despite being publicised as a crime drama, the strongest and most interesting storyline in Bullhead is that of Jacky’s insecurities and obvious frustration that he has lost much of his identity. But, in addition to this, it deals with homosexuality, gangsters, detectives, and long-term mental illness. A large feat for any film, let alone a directorial debut. As a result, Bullhead becomes rather disjointed: the script unfortunately tries to do too much with too many different narrative threads; there are too many characters to keep track of, none of which are helped by the at times questionable camerawork.
Director and writer Michael R. Roskam tries to unfold two major plots simultaneously – that of Jacky and of the beef traffickers – which unfortunately leads to the latter being weaker and under-developed. It almost feels like two separate films at times, particularly with the farcical humour of the two French-speaking mechanics contrasting with Jacky’s horrific tale. I can see what Roskam was trying to achieve with Bullhead – a dynamic, tragic but entertaining film – but, although each individual scene is often very powerful, as a whole it lacks real coherence.
Nevertheless, credit must be given to Roskam for his daring subject matter, especially since this is his debut. The highlight is undoubtedly Matthias Schoenaerts’ impeccable performance, which turns Jacky from a brutish rogue into a figure of empathy. Schoenaerts achieves a wonderfully understated portrayal of the mentally scarred Jacky, consistently evoking the audience’s sympathy, even through shots of complete silence; and yet he portrays the raw, animalistic anger of the character with a menacing presence.
With his equally emotive performance in Rust and Bone last year, Schoenaerts has proven himself a new asset to the acting world. The entire cast of Bullhead are in fact a very cohesive ensemble, embodying the seediness of rural Belgium’s underworld and its subsequent crimes.
Bullhead has its moments of beauty, too: less than an hour in, we find out exactly what happened to Jacky as a child in a flashback, and these horrific shots of the tortured boy are juxtaposed with the modern day man with harrowing effect. From this moment onwards, the film gains momentum and real significance and barely lets up.
Roskam has created a very promising entry into modern Belgian cinema with Bullhead, and although the screenplay may be overly ambitious, it’s a respectable, solid and often touching drama. Perhaps with some better editing and closer plot focus, Bullhead would have been excellent. As it stands, it is a discomforting, well-acted and thought-provoking film which deals with some important, traumatic issues.