Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
The easiest way to hook people into Bullhead, the bleak and punishing gangster movie from first-time Belgian filmmaker Michael Roskam, is to simply label it as one hell of a guy’s flick, the kind of muscular,, gritty, and strikingly violent picture that could make nancy-boys and softer ladies wince. And, concurrently, make tougher viewers reel with excitement and visceral emotion. Bullhead, one of this year’s nominees in the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Film category, isn’t an easy, carefree watch, by any means; its most powerful attribute, though, is actually the tender look at male emasculation that boils beneath the film’s surface of dark shadows, meticulously manipulative lighting, and grizzled dialogue.
What makes Bullhead’s questioning of manhood so impactful is the film’s central performance, that of star Matthias Schoenarts; he plays Jacky, a brutal enforcer when it’s time to exhibit his criminal dominance, yet also an intensely vulnerable, insecure man whenever he’s behind closed doors—it’s the kind of multilayered, tortured, and forcefully charismatic performance that Robert De Niro used to give back in his Taxi Driver/Raging Bull days.
Equally deserving of kudos is Roskam, the writer-director who’s given Schoenarts, his leading man, a truly dynamic and fascinating character to embody. Jacky is a top dog within a Flemish crime outfit that bypasses common narcotics and distributes illegal shots to cattle ranchers looking to speed up their cows’ growth processes. The product is unique, but the police disruptions, double-crosses, snitches, and outbursts of mayhem aren’t dissimilar to those in more conventional, Hollywood mob flicks
Roskam, however, is far from a traditional filmmaker, and it’s his concentration on what makes the deviants, namely Schoenarts’ complicated Jacky, tick that gives the devastating Bullhead its sneaky brilliance. Shown in a grueling, nightmarish flashback, Jacky suffered a physical trauma as a little kid that has since left him sexually inferior—to reveal just what happens would be to spoil one of the film’s biggest shocks.
Due to the horrific event that shall not be ruined here, Jacky is a macho, handsome brute who approaches women like a shy, nerdy little boy, especially Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), a longtime crush/obsession of his who’s tied into the aforementioned incident. As is Diederick (Jeroen Percival), a one-time best friend of Jacky’s who now also involved in the illegal lifestyle, only with a gang of life-threatening secrets to hide.
Like the bovine specimens he endangers for profit, Jacky takes injections of the maturity-enhancing shots, except in his case it’s to progress his stunted manhood, a flaw that’s concealed from his colleagues, as well as one that ultimately puts Bullheadin a separate category from other gangster pics of its ilk. Once the film reaches its uppercut of an ending, a self-destructive explosion that Roskam stages like an art-house slasher movie set-piece, Bullhead seeps into the subconscious enough to trigger further mental inspection hours, and most likely days, after its all over. Not to mention, the hope that Roskam’s talents don’t get neutered by the American system whenever he’s recruited to shoot a Hollywood debut. Which you can bet top-dollar is currently in the closed-door talking stages, at the least.