In late 2012 Belgian star Matthias Schoenaerts emerged as an acting force of nature with his performance in the sensational French drama Rust and Bone. Well here’s one he made earlier.
A nominee at last year’s Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Feature, Bullhead (Rundskop) is an unusual drama about a truly original character. Set in the Dutch-speaking Flanders region, Bullhead is as much a tale of gangsters and illegal farming practices as it is a contemplation of emasculation and rage.
Schoenaerts is astounding as Jacky Vanmarsenille, a crooked cattle farmer still reeling from a childhood trauma, who is forced to inject himself with as many hormones as he puts into his livestock. The testosterone boosts make him aggressive and unpredictable, and combined with Schoenaerts’s massive frame make him the definition of intimidating.
But as his deals with gangsters in the illegal trade of hormone-fuelled beef become increasingly dodgy, the appearance in this underworld cabal of his old friend Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) brings Jacky’s bubbling emotions to the boil. Worse still, Diederik is a police informant, and has to find a way to bring in the badguys while somehow getting Jacky off the hook, to make up for his own failings in the days of their youth.
Bullhead falters at the first hurdle, as the main crime story never properly takes flight. EU anti-hormone laws are interesting but hardly high-drama – it’s hard to take a film seriously when a news report speaks out about the danger of the “beef hormone mafia”. Meanwhile Jacky’s personal journey is so painful and self-destructive that it is regularly difficult to watch. He hopelessly pursues a childhood romance that can never be, while alienating his family who have worked so hard for him. Both elements of the story struggle for an adequate resolution that ultimately evades them.
It’s all adequately shot, with plenty of pretty cutaways to the Flemish countryside and some clever shifts of focus, but with the exception of one memorable image on a spiral staircase there is a lack of invention in the cinematography. New indoor locations are sometimes introduced with steady shots of the automatic doors opening spontaneously, as if inviting the movie in – adding a slightly pretentious air to proceedings utterly out of keeping with such a raw film.
The film’s highlight is undoubtedly the scene where Jacky pursues the object of his affections to a deafening nightclub, where he proceeds to drink alone and angrily, bitterly glaring across the bar at the girl he desires laughing with other men. The intense, rickety close-ups of Schoenaerts’s sweating, lopsided face will feel a little too real for anyone who’s ever had too much to drink on a bad night out.
There’s so little to recommend about this film that is not Schoenaerts, but he alone is so much to recommend. His bullish performance is mesmerising and revolting – violently shoving his crown into the faces of others when tensions rise, like an alpha male elephant. And yet, when Jacky is alone, Schoenaerts brings out all the tragedy of an almost-man whose only desire is to be normal, and whose inability to be so congeals his longing into unbridled rage.
Featuring a scene of genital mutilation that rivals Haneke or Von Trier for brutality (though, mercifully, without the same level of graphic violence), director Michaël R. Roskam’s feature debut is harrowing and unsatisfying, but a show of great potential for future projects. More importantly, it solidifies Matthias Schoenaerts’s position as one of the most natural and physical talents to have emerged in cinema in years.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)