I have to admit that I went into Bullhead unsure what to expect – both content and quality wise. Despite its Oscar nomination, the film carries a ho-hum reputation with the Letterboxd community and the fact it has never received a release in Australia (cinema or DVD) cemented that fact that perhaps wasn’t worth the time. But, as it turns out, Bullhead was worth my time.
Bullhead follows a small town “Hormone Mafia” – a family of shady individuals that deal in the illegal trade of cattle steroids and the selling of meat. The man character, Jacky, is a beef quiet individual who operates as the muscle for the family and the film follows him as he intimidates family members, fellow meat-runners and as he assists his family in their strange business. In addition to this, Jacky is injecting himself with the cattle drugs, a situation that cannot end well.
The film has an absolutely gripping performance from Schoenaerts, he is definitely the core reason to watch this film. I’d honestly call it one of my favourite performances of recent years. He is shy, quiet, riddled with sadness and angry and yet manages to be absolutely affecting despite all the negative aspects of his life. Schoenaerts sometimes has only his body and face to display a feeling or message to the audience and he really drags you into his pitiful wallowing life. What’s more, he is HUGE, completely selling the bullish character he plays – you never doubt for a second that he is the muscle that keeps everything in order.
I cannot be denied that sometimes director Roskam lets the density of plot and characters get away from him, but he does manage to keep the core of Schoenaerts’ Jacky and Perceval’s Diederik on a steady course. His building of their joined story through flashback, as well as their re-joining in the present, allow both of their individual stories to flourish outside of the crime drama. In a lot of respects you can watch the film purely for those characters and still feel like you got a satisfying experience.
The crime drama, or the Hormone Mafia, part of the film is messy and sprawling, with tons of characters, families and locations involved within the hormone trading. It is interesting though to see how one event – the murder of a police officer – completely changes the once secret and undisturbed business. It is a secondary plot for me, but one that adds great detail to the back story of these two fascinating and unique characters.
Bullhead rightfully won’t work for everybody – it is built around character and performance and if you can’t get absorbed by those then you’ll likely struggle through it. But if you can get attracted to the phenomenal work by Schoenaerts and the writing of Jacky, then there is a lot here to admire. I’m thoroughly impressed with Bullhead.