Review: Bullhead



One of Bullhead's production companies is aptly named "Savage Film." The name fits because Bullhead (Rundskop) is entirely savage, a grim and brutal story about, as director Michael Roskam describes it, "people being driven to extremes."

Distributed by Austin's own Drafthouse Films and nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the Belgian import Bullhead is extraordinarily intense, a gripping and often unpleasant tale of organized crime in the Flanders area of Belgium. The story follows Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), a young, impressively muscular cattle farmer with a penchant for steroid abuse and an outlook haunted by a long-ago trauma. A veterinarian coerces Jacky to make a crooked deal with an equally crooked Flemish beef trader; as Bullhead is an intricate thriller, it's impossible to say much more without spoilers. I'll say only that the story involves gangsters, a stolen car, a murdered cop and confrontations with characters from Jacky's painful past.

Bullhead is an action movie, but the action serves mostly as a backdrop for a piercing character study of the painfully conflicted Jacky. Hulking, brooding and capable of both gentle kindness and revolting violence, Jacky is at the center of a world that is at once pastoral and painful. His relationships with family and friends are strained at best, as he's too tormented a soul to fully bond with anyone. Beyond Jacky's own dysfunctions, he really needs to find better friends; loyalties often turn into betrayals, and his friends' allegiances aren't what they seem. Other than a character or two unwillingly caught up in Bullhead's dark universe of crime and punishment, the only innocents in this film may be the cows.

The story of Bullhead is a highly unlikely one -- there aren't many movies about cattle hormone-dealing mobsters, much less Belgian ones -- but it generally works well. The plot is a bit confusing at times (in this subtitled film, some of the story's finer points may have been lost in translation), but there is no misunderstanding Bullhead's emotional punch or its universal theme of the characters' futile battles to avoid their destinies.

As Bullhead is all about Jacky, Schoenaerts completely dominates the film. The veteran actor (American audiences may recognize him from Paul Verhoeven's World War II drama Black Book) spent three years training for the role, gaining nearly 60 imposing pounds and learning to speak local Flemish dialects. Schoenaerts gives a believably agonized performance as Bullhead's steroid-shooting protagonist, balancing Jacky's expectedly brutish traits with some unexpected quirks. (Among other things, he's almost pitifully uncomfortable around women.) He's as dour as the rest of Bullhead, embodying the film's gloomy tone in every way.

Speaking of gloomy, Bullhead's mostly glum atmosphere is sometimes too much. Its look is generally drab, colorless and grimy, as is its worldview. While I respect the film's successful blend of action and character development, I can't quite say Bullhead is an enjoyable time at the movies. It could use a few more bright spots to break up the sometimes monotonous dreariness. Much to its credit, it dispenses with most crime film clichés -- thankfully, there is neither a gratuitous love story nor a trite, neatly resolved ending. But more levity would make Bullhead more watchable.

That said, I recommend Bullhead for its unusual twist on a generally clichéd genre, and for Schoenaerts's standout performance. Kudos to Drafthouse Films for taking a chance on this slightly oddball import -- a film that, thanks to a somewhat surprising Oscar nomination, may well find an appreciative audience.

For a slightly different take on Bullhead, read Debbie Cerda's review from Fantastic Fest, where the movie won three awards.


great movie. bullhead should be winner in oscar.