While dealing with his normal amount of illegal purchase and injection of growth hormones for his cattle, mountain of muscle Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts) makes a decision that expands his family’s role in the world of organized crime in Belgium. Jacky’s decision brings him back into contact with an estranged best friend from his childhood, Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), and, coupled with Jacky’s renewed fascination in a childhood crush, Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), the stage is set for a journey that explores not only the criminal underworld of cattle farms and growth hormones (who knew?), but also walks us through the trials and tribulations that made Jacky the massive man he is today; a seemingly gentle giant who shares in his cattle’s indulgences in various mixes of growth hormone and testosterone, leading to his own intimidating and lumbering physique, short temper and hard-breathing smolder.
I had the opportunity to see Bullhead at the 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival, and my reaction, while I thought the film was incredible, was that it was also too powerful an experience for me to write about at that time. Being in the midst of the fest, I didn’t feel like I was capable of doing the film justice so quickly after seeing it. It’s now a little shy of a year later and, after watching it again, I still don’t feel like I’ve got the chops to express exactly why I adore the film so much.
It’s not an easy film to experience, that’s for sure. It’s a tragedy that steadily grows more and more tragic as the film wears on. As you learn about Jacky’s life, how he got to be the person he is today, as you begin to feel for him and the other characters in the film, the more the experience can emotionally drain and devastate you. It’s a rough ride, depending on your sensibilities.
What isn’t rough is how the film looks. The cinematography and composition is incredible, even when we’re looking at muddy landscapes, fields and farmland environs. The look of it adds an extra bit of grit to the film that becomes fitting with the story; no matter how clean any of the characters get, or think they get, there will always be a layer of dirt or dust on them, reminding them where they came from.
The standout of this film will always be Matthias Schoenaerts’s performance as Jacky. Beyond the visual impact of being physically monstrous and overpowering, Schoenaerts plays him as awkwardly charming and not-so-much-dumb as steroid-addled. There are moments in the film when you’re waiting for him to rip someone’s arm off and beat them with it, and other moments where he couldn’t be more vulnerable and weak. It’s a brilliant performance from start to finish.
Bullhead is yet another title released through Drafthouse Films and like the previous one, The FP, Bullhead has a healthy amount of extra features. There’s a commentary with writer/director Roskam, interview with Matthias Schoenaerts, a making-of featurette, a short film by Roskam starring Schoenaerts, trailer and there’s a 16-page booklet with a written introduction by filmmaker Michael Mann and actor Udo Kier; I agree with Mann’s sentiments that the film is a “masterpiece.”
In the end, what consistently gets me about Bullhead is how often I forget that this is a crime drama, because I get so caught up in the personal stories that the criminal aspect, while being the impetus behind everything going on, fades into the background. At least for me; I was more engaged with how Jacky reconciles his past and present over any of the dramatic aspects of a criminal nature (except when they helped or hindered Jacky’s personal story). I guess what I’m getting at is that this film is far better than I write that it is, and with more breadth than even I tend to focus on.