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by Jay Seaver

"A tiny thing grows as big as the movie's protagonist."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Bullhead" stands as evidence that if you make the effort, you can find an epic tale in the most unlikely of places. Here, writer/director Michael R. Roskam takes us to a cattle farm in Limburg, Belgium, where seemingly unconnected threads conspire to undermine the seeming solidity of a man who, at least physically, seems indomitable.

That man is Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), a muscular mountain of a man who lives and works on the family farm, still single in his mid-thirties. Any ideas the audience might have about a pastoral farming community goes right out the window early, as Jacky uses his bulk to intimidate someone into using his product - bulk that comes in large part from using pharmaceutical cousins to the hormones the Vanmarsenille bulls are loaded up with. It's those hormones that will set half of the film's trouble in motion, as a cop investigating the "hormone mafia" has just been killed by a pair of Flemish gangsters (Frank Lammers & Sam Louwyck), and a connection via Walloon mechanics Christian and David Filippini (Erico Salamone and Philippe Grand'Henry) may wrongly lead to Jacky's brother Stieve (Kristof Renson), and Jacky's old friend Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) is informing to the cops. Plus, there's Lucia Schepers (Jenne Dandoy), a lovely girl tied to the incident in Jacky's past that, more than anything else, made Jacky the man he is today.

There's a lot going on in this movie, and it can be very easy to get tripped up if one is not paying close attention - one detective angrily declares that she doesn't believe in coincidences, and the presence of a couple certainly makes the pattern of connections more complicated. Also, large parts of the story are fairly Belgium-specific: Roskam places the action in three different parts of the country, and certain tensions are exacerbated by the country's bi-lingual nature: Most of the characters are Dutch-speaking Flemish, while others are French-speaking "Walloons", and the plot can often turn on whether or not someone can understand a conversation going on right in front of him or assumed class differences that may not be immediately clear from the film's one-size-fits-all English subtitling.

To a certain extent, though, much of that complication can be taken or left, because Bullhead would still be an intriguing movie if all it had going for it was Matthias Schoenaerts. Reportedly packing on sixty pounds for the role, Schoenaerts paints a convincing portrait of a man who is missing something vital and overcompensates for it to a terrifying extent, even as doing so makes him more and more unstable. There's a tormented slowness and frustration to his frustration, rather than a screaming "roid rage", that drags him down beautifully.

The rest of the cast is quite the intriguing lot, too. Roskam might have wound up with a pretty good movie if he'd focused on Jeroen Perceval's Diederik, for instance; Perceval plays the man as always nervous, caught in a vice by Barbara Sarafian's lead detective Eva Forrestier and probably smart enough to know that his closeted sexuality is being used to manipulate him, but too desperate to find a way out to handle it. Jeanne Dandoy does a nice job of keeping up as her role grows in importance in the second half of the movie, playing a perfect combination of cool and terrified in a climactic scene against Scoenaerts that is as tragic as it is tense.

The roots of that come from a horrifying flashback scene that seems to come out of nowhere but later hangs like a cloud over the entire movie, eventually tying into the crime storyline more directly but in the meantime forcing the audience to wonder at the misplaced shame and restricted concepts of masculinity. I'm not sure that the tie-in is quite as smooth as it should be, but it does an impressive job of pulling the film's various elements together for some final, tragic moments. Another intriguing thing Roskam does is to keep the inciting event that causes the collapse of everything - the detective's murder - a relatively undramatic event, even though it changes everything.

That's some impressive work by Roskam, Shoenaerts, and company: A small crime story that leads to one a great performance and an almost operatic story.

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originally posted: 07/17/11 06:23:52
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Berlin International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2011 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/17/11 rosita roggen great film 5 stars
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  DVD: 26-Jun-2012


  DVD: 26-Jun-2012

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