Unyielding physique balanced by its vulnerability.
BULLHEAD (Rundskop) (2011) is a disturbingly visceral and tragic film from debut writer-director Michaël R. Roskam. The 2011 Belgian drama stars Matthias Schoenaerts as “Jacky Vanmarsenille,” a cattle farmer that becomes entangled in a conflict between the authorities and the mafia over his use of growth hormones in his cattle. Bullhead was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012. In this, intensely dark and quiet character study, lurk the subliminal suppression of masculinity. Beneath all the muscle lies a very troubled and vulnerable cattle farmer who wanted above all else, to experience an ordinary life.
Jacky (Schoenaerts) makes his living selling hormonally modified beef–and himself a user of the steroid. A police officer investigating the illegal sales of the modified beef is killed, and the detectives involved in finding out who did it are edging closer to Jacky. An old friend from his childhood turned police informant Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) resurfaces after twenty years–even though he tries to remove Jacky from the focus of the police investigation; his presence is a nagging reminder of the secret–an overwhelming personal tragedy from Jacky’s childhood. The film drifts in and out to moments of their troubled adolescence–a time when Jacky as a small boy found himself in the wrong place and at the wrong time.
Roskam’s Bullhead successfully depict Schoenaerts character Jacky Vanmarsenille’s desperation and hopelessness. You wonder if he ever held a happy moment in his life. Equally powerful is the detachment Jacky expresses from the rest of the world. He watches as his brother enjoys being a husband and father–he even remarked towards the end of the film that it was something that he wished for himself, someone he can love and protect. Bounded by his unyielding physique, Jacky is aptly balanced by its vulnerability.
The cinematography is solemnly beautiful, and since the focus of the film is on its central character, Jacky, the expansiveness was necessary to withstand his massive size. During the scenes of a much smaller and much younger Jacky, the expansive scenery was carefully framed in such a way so that the great atmosphere would swallow him whole.
The specific plot details are sketchy at the beginning of the film, and eventually, we learn why the Vanmarsenille family business is so successful and why the police are complicating business for everyone. More importantly, we also learn about the tragic events that made our troubled protagonist the bully that he is. We can’t help but to empathize or understand the reason behind his actions–it is as if his pain and anger are validated. So we too, find ourselves shadow boxing alongside Jacky–battling the demons the only way he knew how.
Bullhead is a conscious, slow-burning thriller. A near- masterpiece that is not soon forgotten.