Bullhead is, by far, one of the most visceral and unforgiving movies you are likely to see this year. Amidst a release calendar that boasts movies such as The Hunt and What Richard Did, it stands tall and proud as Director Michaël R. Roskam's debut feature. It's uncompromisingly aggressive without relying on graphic violence, and it's powerfully emotional without drifting into the melancholic. It's easily one of the best directorial debuts I have ever seen, and it boasts a style that seems perfectly suited as the platform that will propel Matthias Schoenaerts to certain critical acclaim.
It follows the story of Jacky Vanmarsenille, a Bull farmer in Flemish Belgium. We catch up with Jacky as the family business seems to be passing over to him. He's becoming responsible for the farm his family have worked on since he was a child, and with it comes the responsibility of ensuring his bulls are kept pumped full of steroids and hormone replacements. The Vanmarsenilles have been deeply plugged into the seedy underworld of illegal growth hormone drugs for as long as Jacky can remember.
Jacky suffered a truly horrific injury when he was a child, one that left him permanently scarred both physically and emotionally, and his resolve comes in the form of pumping himself up with growth hormones, just like his bulls. His rage and his anger are both fuelled by the horrible incident 20 years previous, and it has led to him feeling tortured by the fact that no woman could ever love him because of what happened.
When, by chance, Jacky happens upon a girl he recognises from around the time of the accident, he finds himself compelled to approach her. Completely devoid of any experience in matters of courtship, he stumbles clumsily around her as he attempts to size up her feelings for him in much the same way he would size up one of his livestock. He's hopelessly and completely inept when it comes to love, which is yet another source of frustration for him.
During a deal with a well known supplier of the illegal hormones, Jacky recognises one of the suppliers men as being Diederik, his childhood friend with whom he hasn't spoken in almost 20 years. Diederik was with Jacky when he suffered his brutal injury. Overwhelmed by a confusing mess of emotions, Jacky struggles to keep his cool.
When a police officer investigating the illegal drug ring is murdered, Jacky becomes unwittingly embroiled in a murder investigation. It's an act of stupidity by two hapless characters who are charged with destroying the vehicle used in the act that sets what follows in motion. Jacky is subject to intense scrutiny from the police, unbeknownst to him, his every move is observed. The story twists and turns through a series of complex yet enthralling sequences as Jacky tries to piece together everything that's going on around him, as he hopes to avoid his Livestock drug-ring being discovered, or worse.
Ok, so you could most certainly find holes in the plot if you chose to look for them. It's by no means water-tight, but what's truly amazing about Bullhead is that it's delivered with such blazon confidence. It's a complicated tale, and one that is not easily recounted or summarized, but what I can say is that it is profoundly original, powerfully evocative, deeply disturbing and without a doubt, utterly captivating from start to finish.
It's a dark and seething tale that constantly gives you this feeling that there's a bubbling undercurrent of pure aggression just below the surface. The majority of this sensation comes from Matthias Schoenaerts' portrayal of Jacky Vanmarsenille. His performance is potent, effortlessly balancing a sense of deep seated anger and bitterness with innocence and inexperience. It's most certainly not a role that many actors out there could portray as convincingly as Schoenaerts does here, that's for sure.
Debutant Michaël R Roskam manages to convey a gritty sense of violence without really showing it. It's delicately handled, and marvellously convincing. I find myself wanting to describe this movie as a dark and violent film, but the truth is, the violence is more suggestive than anything. There's actually very little by way of violent sequences, but I came away feeling disturbed by the violence that's hinted at throughout. Most of it comes from how well directed Schoenaerts is, with his huge frame and solitary moments of raw aggression in his small bedroom, fighting an imaginary opponent with vicious punches to the air – it's almost made more violent by the fact that there's no one on the receiving end of these huge blows. He's absolutely and completely terrifying, yet completely lost and hopelessly innocent at the same time. An incredible performance.
Schoenaerts had to pile on the pounds for the role, and the hard work it must have been to gain that much muscle mass certainly qualifies him as a candidate for the method movement. However, despite the insane amount of respect I have for the man as an actor in his short career so far, a lot of his performance here is made that much more exceptional by the supporting cast. That's not to say that the movie is devoid of any talent, far from it, but in being surrounded by arguably average actors, just how good Schoenaerts is is far easier to see.
It's easy to see why this was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film back in 2012. In fact, I have no doubts that it was almost certainly the front runner for a time, being pipped at the post by Asghar Farhadi's moving and controversial A Separation. Of course, I say this with the concession that I am often completely surprised, baffled and bemused by the decisions the Academy come to, and I simply don't understand their decisions a lot of the time. Nevertheless, had Bullhead won, it most certainly would have been well deserved.
Having gone on to feature in the enormously successful Rust & Bone under exciting helmer Jaques Audiard whose brilliantly engaging A Prophet took the world cinema stage by storm, it's clear that Matthias Schoenaerts is destined for great things. His performance in Bullhead is exceptional and he's an extremely exciting and explosive actor to watch. As for Michaël R Roskam, I hold equal hopes for, as he's clearly demonstrated that he has incredible ability and a delicate hand in coaxing decent performances from his actors. With his next project in the pipeline boasting the likes of Tom Hardy and James Gandalfini, not to mention Schoenaerts himself, it's safe to say that he'll be tested to his limits. Animal Rescue is set for release sometime in 2014, and if Bullhead is anything to go by, I'm definitely more than excited to see what he comes up with next.
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