Tuesday 29 January 2013

Bullhead Review

As Al Pacino's Tony Montana from Scarface plainly illustrates, indulging in one's own contraband is not necessarily the best choice in business.  Nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category in 2012, writer and director Michael R. Roskam's Bullhead focuses on another type of drug business, that of the Belgian bovine hormone mafia. The usual parties of the human drug world are swopped in Bullhead for quiet dinners and cattle sheds. 

Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) is Jack Vanmarsenille, the titular bullhead of the film. Jacky is himself beef to the heels (like a Mullingar Heifer) and now an integral part of the family business of cattle doping for profit. With a bleak outlook on life in his introductory narration - 'in the end we are all f$%ed' - Jacky's story is not as obvious as having been corrupted by the family's cross generational criminal activities. Instead Jacky's own emphatically masculine exterior is a battleground around which the central themes of what it is to be a man is played out. Jacky pumps his body full of the testosterone and growth hormones he does with his own cattle. At the nub of his steroid addiction is the boy he was 20 years before who suffered an attack maiming him for life in a stunted state of loneliness and personal confusion. 

Roskam openly plays with the concept of coincidence when Jacky's once childhood friend Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) becomes a police informer as they investigate the activities of the Flemish bovine mafia. Having witnessed the attack on Jacky when the two meet again as adults it triggers Jacky's barely concealed ferocious inner turmoil. The police investigation comes to Jacky's gate due to the slightly more comic misadventures of the French speaking Christian (Erico Salamone) and David (Philippe Grand'Henry), incompetent petty criminals who try to double deal a rival mafia group via car wheels sold to Jacky's brother Stieve (Kristof Renson). Though necessary to create drama in the film, the criminal plot of Bullhead is sometimes a distracting backdrop to the internal drama within Jacky. 

Schoenaerts, so impressive in Rust and Bone, brings a physicality mixed with a palpable loneliness to Jacky. With flash backs to Jacky as a child, the film time and again finds Jacky trapped within his own hell and sanctuary symbolised by the naked qualities of his bathroom where he keeps his steroids trying desperately to replicate what it is to be a man. Schoenaerts performance is electrifying. His Jacky is constantly teetering on the tightrope of animalistic testosterone fuelled rage and child-like confusion packaged in a fearsome body. As Jacky stumbles towards a dream of what his life could be like as a man with a wife and family, the film begins to tighten around him and there is nothing so dangerous as a wounded fierce animal. 

With Schoenaerts' magnificent performance at the heart of Bullhead the film can come highly recommended. However, with just over a two hour running time, the various plot strands do become tiresome and feel unnecessary especially with humour being injected into the last 3rd which, though stylishly done, does take from the momentum of Jacky's story. Bullhead does succeed as an emotional heartbreaking story about what it might be to be a man and when nature is corrupted by the short sighted desires of others.

Rating: 4 Stars out of 5

Bullhead. Belgium 2012. Directed by Mikaël R. Roksam. Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval, Jeanne Dandoy... Out in the UK on the 8th of February

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