Year: 2012
Director: Michael R. Roskam
Writer: Michael R. Roskam
Region of Origin: Belgum
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: R
Color, 128 mins

Synopsis: A young cattle farmer is approached by a veterinarian to make a deal with a notorious beef trader. (Source)

Bullhead is perhaps the most devastatingly bleak movie I’ve ever seen. Unlike anything else, it’s original not only because of its backdrop (more on this soon), but because of the way it can magnify, personify, and so completely embody the concept of manhood and all of its folly and weakness with razor-sharp accuracy. Lyrical and poetically unpredictable from one minute to the next, writer/director Michael R. Roskam weaves a tale so dark and heartfelt that if you don’t feel anything while watching it, your heart simply isn’t beating. If what I’ve said thus far sounds a bit lofty, it is. Yet through the deep, dark abyss of masculinity (or the lack thereof), there are hairline fractures of hope that prove, if anything, light coexists with darkness.

On the surface, Bullhead is a lot of things: a crime drama involving black-market meat intertwined with mafia families, a character study of a physically imposing yet inwardly destroyed protagonist, a host of reopened old wounds, and a dose of second chances and vengeance enter the picture when you least expect them. Throughout the maelstrom though, its focus is on the displaced and inverted masculinity of Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts). All I’m willing to say here is that something horrific happened to Jacky when he was young, and throughout his life those around him (especially himself) have been dealing with the aftereffects in many different ways. Writer/director Roskam expertly uses this event to subvert many stereotypes on the matter, and nothing is ever what it apparently seems. In the end, the story is also about how we can never truly escape the consequences of our choices and the the things that are done to us. As the plot weaves in and out of its non-linear narrative with dreamlike fluidity, the idea of manhood is torn apart and dissected, showing us deeply rooted flaws in our own human nature, while being juxtaposed with the animals with which Jacky makes an illegal living.

Unsurprisingly, Bullhead’s two secret weapons are first time writer/director Michael Roskam and star Matthias Schoenaerts; the two are a powerfully potent team. Roskam really has an eye not only for the humanity of his characters, but also as one of the few directors that can make you feel as if you’re watching an intangible theme materialize itself before your very eyes. Shot in an almost surreal focus-shifting fashion, every frame’s dark consequences soak into your bones. On the other hand, Schoenaerts is utterly empathetic and terrifyingly relatable, bringing an impressive physical realism to his desperate role. His performance really deserves more attention than it’s being given. There are some interesting contrasts between his character and his environment that are brought out through Schoenaerts’ uncanny ability to manifest his character’s most broken and pitiful characteristics amidst his terrifying actions.

I’ve purposely tried to stay as vague as possible, but if there’s anything that you take away from this film, it’s that Bullhead is an experience (keyword) unlike any other. I really can’t see any flaws in it; it’s masterfully written, directed, and executed with painfully humane performances and a message as bleak as a godless sky. However, don’t think that because it’s dark it doesn’t have a purpose. It’s a highly motivated piece of art that tries to make sense of the human condition and the damage we do to ourselves. Roskam goes to great lengths to probe our animalistic tendencies, and somewhere deep within I believe he finds some positive differences that are hard to ignore.

Crome Rating: 5/5