Fantastic Fest Review: Bullhead

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Bullhead

Fantastic Fest 2011 was marked by several "slow burn" thrillers this year, and the most exceptional film I saw in this category was Bullhead (Rundskop), the feature directorial debut of Belgian writer/director Michael Roskam that won the fest's AMD and DELL "Next Wave" Spotlight awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. What starts out as a movie about the mafia behind illegal bovine hormone use and trading in the Belgian agricultural industry turns into an intensive character study of one thug who is addicted to illegal hormones.

Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts plays Jacky Vanmarsenille, a young brute who works on his uncle's cattle farm and strong-arms other cattle farmers to do business as he demands. A local unscrupulous veterinarian who takes care of the Vanmarsenilles' cattle approaches them with a deal to sell their beef to notorious hormone trafficker Marc Decuyper (Sam Louwyck). The so-called "hormone mafia" trades in banned substances which when injected into beef cattle convert fat to lean flesh and stimulate artificial and increased growth rates, ensuring big profits for producers. Decuyper's brutality and ruthlessness is evidenced by the assassination of a federal policeman who had been investigating his illegal bovine drug trade.

As dangerous as Decuyper is, the real deal-breaker for Jacky is the reappearance of someone from his past: Diederik (Joroen Perceval), one of Decuyper's crew. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about the childhood friendship and tragic history between Diederik and Jacky. As the story unfolds, Diederik seeks redemption and Jacky unravels as he can't escape the effects of his past.

Bullhead mesmerizes viewers with its complex plot and character development. My initial impression of Jacky was that he was an unlikeable character -- an insensitive brutish bully. However, the tragic revelation of the reason behind his massive steroid use leads viewers to sympathize with him. Diederik is also seen as an opportunistic coward, until we see how far he is willing to go to support his friend -- both in their childhood and now as adults. Diederik's conflict between being a police informant about Decuyper's illegal activities and keeping Jacky out of trouble is well-portrayed.

Schoenaerts' deconstruction of Jacky is an amazing portrayal of a young man unable to escape his past. Perceval's performance as Diederik also provides a strong supporting character. Even the young actors who play Jacky and Diederik as children are well worth mentioning, especially during a pivotal tragic scene that reveals the source of Jacky's emotional and physical trauma.

The cinematography and art design lends an almost film noir style to Bullhead, with close shots and dark tones filling the frame. Very little graphic violence is displayed against animals. Even the most traumatic violence which occurs in this film is not seen directly, yet has a lasting impression on the audience.

Some plot points of Bullhead may be lost on American audiences, such as the demarcation between the people of Wallonia and Flanders. The French-speaking Wallonian mechanics are portrayed as blundering idiots, while the Flemish are the smarter criminals. Also foreign to the U.S. is the very real existence of illegal bovine hormone trade in Europe. Director Roskam spoke during the Q & A about the true story of Belgian vet Karel van Noppen, who was gunned down at his home in 1996 by a suspected member of the international hormone mafia. As a government meat inspector, van Noppen had mounted a campaign against dealers in illegal animal hormones.

Although no plans have been made to distribute Bullhead in the United States, I hope the movie will be available here soon. It is Belgium's official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category in the Academy Awards, and understandably so. I highly recommend it for Schoenaerts' performance alone.