A. A. Collins, Cinedelphia’s Portland-based correspondent, reports from the 2012 Portland International Film Festival.
Michael Roskan’s debut and Belgium’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee, Bullhead, like its bullheaded protagonist, is bold and muscular, an energetic piece of filmmaking with nary hint of subtlety. The least likely of the Foreign Language nominees, this is an odd, schizophrenic beast with a lot of great parts that don’t quite add up to a worthwhile whole.
Bullhead is the story Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenarts), a big, muscular slab of granite of a man who splits his time between being a livestock farmer and enforcer for his family’s sideline as meat mafiosos. As silly as “meat mafia” sounds, the film does manage to convincingly depict a seedy underworld in which farmers and dealers from Limburg and West-Flanders illegally pump livestock full of steroids in order to increase their profits. These gangsters also extort cattle from smaller farmers, shoot cops, inform on each other, and change allegiances when convenient.
In this cutthroat environment, Jacky stands out as the meanest, biggest baddass. Schoenarts’s portrayal is all quiet, repressed energy, with sudden violent bursts of pure anger. He lets the audience in on very little of what makes Jacky tick, merely hinting at the driving motives behind the man. “My whole life I’ve know nothing but these beasts,” muses Jacky at one point. He does share a lot of traits with the bulky animals, not least of which is the chemical enhancers flowing through their veins. Jacky’s apartment is a veritable cornucopia of pills and drugs. Some of Bullhead’s most compelling scenes show Jacky naked and alone ritualistically injecting steroids into his bloodstream.
A shady, steroid-peddling veterinary brings Jacky in on a deal with a bigger meat gang. While at a meeting with this cartel, they encounter Diederick (Jeroen Perceval) a mid-level flunky for the organization and Jacky’s estranged childhood friend. Diederick’s resurgence brings back memories of a disturbing incident from their childhood that has scarred Jacky since. This moment is the pivotal point of the film and Jacky and Diederick’s actions for the remainder of the story stem, one way or another, from the pain and guilt they acquired that day. From here on, the character of Jacky gains a different subtext and Schoenart does a great job at playing his more vulnerable beats.
Roskan has acknowledged the influence of American crime films on Bullhead and this shows throughout. He has a strong command of the tropes and the style of the genre, yet the distinct setting –name one crime film either set in rural Flanders or that deals with supped up meat trafficking, I dare you—make this seem fresh. Scorsese is an obvious touchstone and the film sometimes feels like an homage.
I have no problem with recycling ideas and styles, I even encourage it (see Refn, Nilcolas Winding). And if you are going to borrow from someone, it might as well be the best. Scorsese himself comes from a long tradition of genre films from which he has borrowed plots and updated old ideas to make them his own. He even remade a Hong Kong crime drama that was itself heavily inspired by his old films. And Roskan manages to do similar things in Bullhead, but ultimately he bites off more than he can chew. He should have picked one Scorsese film/style and stuck with it.
Instead, Bullhead has a Mean Streets-like “two boys from the neighborhood grow up in crime” plot; Jacky as Travis Bickle awkwardly stalking his old crush; the posturing machismo of Raging Bull; silly banter between gangsters that seems take straight out of Goodfellas; a dash of Bringing Out the Dead’s manic energy; and cops that could’ve been in The Departed. On top of that, there is the long childhood flashback; a comedic subplot with two Walloon mechanics and some rims; a police investigation with cameras, informants, and tapped phone lines; and an eerily beautiful scene where Jacky performs a C-section on a heifer.
Roskan piles all of these elements on to the detriment of the film. While parts are very good and the lead performance is excellent, the just over two hours running time cannot hold everything that the film is trying to be. Even though the film provides Jacky with catharsis, the audience walks away unsatisfied. There is a lot to recommend in Bullhead, but, in the end, it just doesn’t add up.