Bullhead, the dark and unsettling directorial debut from Michaël R. Roskam simmers with a vicious intensity, eerily reminiscent of early Scorsese, and receiving only a cursory nod at the Academy Awards, Bullhead serves as a reminder as to just how gutless its cinematic contemporaries are.
A sweeping generalisation of course, but the uncomfortable juxtaposition between the glamorous showboating of the Oscars and some of the finest dramatic cinema I’ve seen coming from abroad leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Don’t worry, It’ll wear off. Perhaps.
Bullhead resides within the dangerous underworld of the Belgian meat industry, where hormone doping and blackmail ensure the consistent flow of meat products around the region and beyond. Centered around the imposing cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), Bullhead weaves a multi-layered narrative of crime, murder and coercion in the present day, while expanding upon the dark and twisted past of Jacky. These stories eventually collide and erupt in an unexpected, and quite possibly, objectionable climax. It’s rare to find a film that leaves the audience questioning whether the conclusion was what they truly wanted.
After his absolutely astounding performance in Rust & Bone (produced successively but released before Bullhead) Matthias Schoenaerts proves that he is one hell of a leading actor. His ability to carry films on his own immense shoulders finds no greater recognition than in Bullhead, where the film finds itself flagging a little every time Schoenarts is sidelined. While many actors of his generation can ‘act’ intensely (Phoenix in The Master, a case in point), Schoenarts exudes a terrifying authenticity in his performances that achieves scary realism rather than forced theatricality.
At times Bullhead does struggle with reconciling its disparate narrative, and rather than a seamless intertwining of stories, we are occasionally forced to suffer a step-by-step reveal. While each individual story is compelling, the almost episodic approach in to which the film occasionally strays, disrupts the flow. Packed with a little more meat than perhaps necessary, this has a two-fold effect of slowing the pace and to an extent, diminishing the potency of previous scenes. However, this is a small sin and for some, may even provide some welcome relief.
Evocative and powerful, Bullhead is a refreshing viewing experience. Despite its urban and gritty aesthetic, it even surprises with some stunning cinematography from Nicolas Karakatsanis that bravely forces viewers to confront Schoenarts psychological torment. Unfortunately a little uneven in places, and perhaps a little harrowing for some, Bullhead is a slab of meaty cinema that deserves much more recognition.