BULLHEAD (Rundskop) A-
Belgium (124 mi) 2011 'Scope d: Michaël R. Roskam
A brutally dark and uncompromising film that encompasses many different styles, veering into film noir, but most often using the suspenseful manner of a thriller featuring a loner character on-the-edge who’s capable of doing anything, often coming very close to the cringe factor, as this film ventures into territory few would wish to explore. Despite the exquisite direction, which is never showy or ever intended to draw attention to itself, it’s quite surprising this film, from a first time director, was chosen by Belgium over the nation’s patron saints of cinema, the Dardennes Brothers’ latest Cannes offering The Kid With a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) (2011) as the country’s selection for Best Foreign Film, and even more surprising that the American Academy Award Foreign Film Selection committee, which has had fits in this category in year’s past, overlooking what many felt were the best films, named this as one of the five finalists for 2012. Because of the uncomfortable subject matter, which keeps the audience at an arm’s distance while simultaneously telling a riveting story, brilliantly using old-fashioned film techniques like storytelling through editing and camera movement, integrating the sound design or changing the film speed, it’s a daring and superb choice, one that chooses art over individual comfort. If truth be told, there are literally hundreds of films that explore damaged women, who have been raped or abused in some manner, where the psychological implications become the narrative of the film. Isabelle Huppert has made a living playing this kind of part. It’s quite rare, however, to see such an accomplished examination of a brutally damaged man, especially one exhibiting this degree of skill behind the camera. We saw glimpses of it with Michael Fassbender in Shame (2011), but this is something different altogether. Written by the director, cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis, there is an immediate connection to the screen from the opening shot, a superb rural landscape, where one doesn’t wish to look away to read the subtitles, as there’s also a brief opening narration which gives the audience a clue what to expect when there is an imbalance in nature.
Among the many things happening in this film is a playful dig at Belgium’s own split culture, the Dutch-speaking Flanders and the French-speaking Wallonia, where each side refuses to learn the language of the other, as they’ve basically grown up to despise the other half, where lifelong prejudices rule the day, which becomes somewhat comical in this film as the story plays into this built-in prejudice. Heavily grounded in near documentary style realism, it’s also an examination of machismo, especially as defined in rural outbacks or in the criminal element that remains outside the bounds of mainstream society. Matthias Schoenaerts plays Jaky, who gained 60 pounds of muscle to bulk up for this role, using bodybuilding techniques to become a hulking muscular mass, a kind of gentle giant walking among us who has the strength to tear any man apart, yet he works quietly on his family farm with his own parents raising cattle. What separates them from other farmers is they inject illegal hormones into their beef in order to fatten them up prematurely, where bigger cattle means more money, also saving money in the long run as they don’t have to keep them as long. This is as much a family way of life as cooking crystal meth is in the Ozarks, or bootlegging moonshine whisky in Kentucky. It’s regional, becoming cultural through the years, and it’s outside the law. Despite efforts to stop it, the practice continues as it’s become ingrained with organized crime. As Jacky’s small group of outsiders attempts to extend their territory into crime-infested Wallonia, all hell breaks loose, including the killing of a policeman, which doesn’t exactly do wonders for business and sets the tone for a police investigation. Through flashback sequences back to childhood, we learn the devastating origins of Jacky’s own personal trauma, one which remains a lifelong skeleton in his closet, and a clue to his behavior.
The film is also something of a police procedural mixed together with bits and pieces of Jaky’s past which resurface with the police killing and the attempted entry into forbidden territory, where Jaky has to come to terms with what’s haunted him his entire life. He’s such an imposing presence, bulking up by injecting the same drugs he uses on the animals, which affects his mental outlook, creating such an unstable force the audience recognizes a potential train wreck when they see one. It’s significant to recall, however, just what little harm he’s caused others up to this point, as he largely keeps to himself and his small circle of friends. It’s this unfortunate business on the other side that’s creating havoc, stirring up something inside, which plays out like long lost memories rising to the surface. Once the external circumstances are revealed, the director changes focus and moves inward, becoming a hyper intense interior examination of personal tragedy, where Jaky is continually battling his internal demons. Set largely in the rural outskirts away from the mainstream of life, they set their own laws out there and define their own cultural traditions, where this concept of macho strength and male personal fortitude has a different definition altogether, becoming an intense character study. Schoenaerts truly offers an astonishing, testosterone-laden performance, chasing the boundaries of inner rage, where his behavior grows more erratic and unpredictable, becoming a human timebomb waiting to explode. Darkly disturbing, but also internally complex, the audience may feel alienated from the brutality, but drawn to the impressive craftsmanship of the director who really pulls it all together in this psychologically probing and constantly inventive work that challenges our own preconceived notions of masculinity.