I caught Bullhead (Rundskop) at a preview screening ahead of its loss to A Separation at the Oscars® last weekend. I can see how this Belgian film would interest the Academy but not win the award. It is a straight-forward if dreary film that opens with a voice over grumbling about becoming “fucked” for life after a wicked turn of events during childhood. The tragic finality of the statements by this ambiguous voice will reverberate throughout the film, as one domino after another collides to its hopeless ending, as promised by the narrator, who turns out to be the beefy lug Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts).
But before you can form any sympathy for Jacky, he is established as one mean sonofabitch. We meet him in physical form as he intimidates an elderly farmer in front of a threshing machine. As he warns the farmer to only buy his bulls from his father, Jacky pokes and prods the old man ever closer to the bin of the machine with the wheeled blades hovering above. Director/writer Michael R. Roskam proves he knows how to ratchet up the tension with a setpiece early in the film.
Jacky seems like a ‘roided out loose cannon with hair trigger nerves. It’s no wonder because he shoots up steroids as if it were heroine. After shooting up, he boxes at the air and snorts like the pumped beef raised by his family, who unabashedly use black market growth hormones to thicken up the animals. Just as soon as the viewer might figure to have judged Jacky as unlikable, the film will soon offer another side to him that will constantly test the limits of how much one could sympathize for this man.
During a meeting with a shady group of gangsters at a racetrack, the pumped up and nervous Jacky seems to feel like an unstable liability when Diederik “Ricky” Maes (Jeroen Perceval), a man from his past, appears among the men. The tension is vivid and unpredictable. The scenes ride along on this heavy air and culminate after Jacky turns down a visit to a brothel following the meeting. The film then flashes back 20 years into the past when Jacky was a waifish little boy. Though they cannot be more than eight years of age, Jacky and Ricky are already wondering aloud about the mystery of women and exactly how coupling with them works. When they spy Bruno, the mentally unstable son of a business associate of Jacky’s father, passing out porn magazines to a group of kids, Bruno chases after Jacky and Ricky. Bruno takes down little Jacky, and after one of the most harrowing moments of kid-on-kid abuse ever conceived in cinema, much is illuminated in what Jacky has become.
After establishing Jacky as someone you might feel no concern for, just another thug in a gangster flick, the film grows a tentacle of complexity that refuses to stop lingering over the unfolding events. When Jacky is introduced to other criminals as “our buffoon,” one could almost feel pity for this man. As the film progresses, however, the complexity of his tragic past becomes a constant echo on devolving morally questionable events, as more people from his past reemerge. Bullhead winds up feeling like an endurance test in moral ambiguity suited for those looking for something more than a fun night with popcorn, soda and a movie. This is grim, pathetic stuff.
However, Bullhead is not a roller coaster gangster flick. In fact, the film seems to drag when it turns its focus away from Jacky and to the machinations of fate closing in on him, be it spying cops or double-dealing gangsters. The presence of the sullen Schoenaerts on the screen adds the spark of electricity to the proceedings that elicit both tension and pathos. The actor brings out a humanity to Jacky that would otherwise feel difficult to swallow from many others. Though he seems doomed from the start, Jacky also feels like the greatest thing at stake at the heart of Bullhead‘s story, as the film seems to hurtle toward an inevitable, if slightly over-the-top, ending. Roskam stumbles to think he needs to inflate the melodrama with slow motion and sound effects any more than the tragic circumstances of this fellow dictate. Behind this beastly man there seems to be the last glowing ember of a soul hoping for love in a world that doesn’t bother to pause for a moment to consider his soul.
The story alone is a journey of hopeless gloom. The color palette of blacks, grays and browns illustrated the dreary mood appropriately. Though lush and reeking of old European quaintness, the sets offer little to brighten the heavy mood. Bullhead offers a twisty character study stemming from some twisted circumstances of fate, and that’s heavy enough.
Bullhead is rated R, runs 124 min. and is French and Dutch with English subtitles. It opens in South Florida Thursday, Mar. 1, at 8 p.m., at O Cinema in Miami. It opens wider, Friday, Mar. 2, at 6:40 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and then the following day at the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables, on the University of Miami campus, at 6:45 p.m. and further north, in Broward County, at 8:45 p.m. and Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. Finally, if you are outside South Florida, the film’s national screening dates can be found here.