Bullhead couldn’t have picked a more topical time to hit UK cinemas. The current media swarm surrounding the horse meat scandal, with countless foreign suppliers coming under new scrutiny, lends this Belgium thriller a pertinent hook. Writer-director Michael R. Roskam’s film has taken a couple of years to finally find release in the UK, but its timing couldn’t be snappier.
The horse meat story has awakened the general public to a little covered subject, and Bullhead threatens to do the same. Set in rural Belgium, the film immerses itself in the world of illegal cattle breeding; the stock are injected with hormones to speed up the process and make them fattier for consumption. The Vanmarsenilles are a farming family who rely on this shady practice for their livelihood, led by the hulking Jacky, one of two sons. In the second sequence we follow his trip to intimidate a local farmer who wants out. Jacky’s tetchy, menacing presence is evident, the message clear to the viewer; cattle farming is serious business.
Jacky is played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who brings his monstrous physicality from Rust and Bone to the fore again. Schoenaerts is singling himself out as a unique actor, someone able to terrify the audience while demonstrating a naked vulnerability. While his brother has a young family to protect, Jacky is left to the seedier side of the family business. One of his accomplices, a veterinarian, suggests a lucrative deal with a West Flemish beef trader, new territory for their low key set up. Jacky is apprehensive; the murder of a detective investigating the meat mafia hangs over them, and he thinks they should lay low. Furthermore, an unwelcome face from the past crops up in the trader’s gang.
Bullhead is not your typical mafia drama. For one, the location and subject lends the film a fresh take on a tired genre. The opening shot is a strikingly beautiful image of a woodland dawn, overlaid with Jacky’s blunt and poetic voice over. Roskam immediately announces this as a film that cherishes character and soul as much as the unsavoury trappings of the genre. There is a complex plot, things start to go awry, violence punctuates the landscape and the protagonist is a bullish hothead with an uncompromising taste for blood. Yet, this is no Scarface. Roskam makes sure the audience never strays from Jacky’s tormented plight, revealing his past demons through a series of flashbacks.
It is these flashbacks which elevate Bullhead above its gangster peers. Often derided as a clumsy expository device, here they add much needed context to Jacky’s current physical and mental state. One particular sequence will leave the male audience members with nightmares for months. Like Michael Haneke’s Hidden, we see how past events can profoundly affect the present. The film is also remarkable in that it is the feature debut of writer-director Roskam. Not since the Antipodean blitz of Snowtown and Animal Kingdom has a debutante steered a thriller with so much confidence and verve.
Perhaps the only false move comes at the finale; a slightly dubious move into buddy movie territory derails the focus on Jacky’s doomed plight, and edges towards a predictable climax. Up to that point however, Roskam has the audience wrapped around his finger, conjuring a tale blessed with brutality and tenderness. An offbeat subject matter introduced to punchy character drama, with a smattering of violence. Bullhead marks out Roskam as a talent, and further demonstrates Schoenaerts as a muscular new acting force.