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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

BULLHEAD -- DVD review by porfle

As beleaguered cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille, the title character in Belgian writer-director Michael R. Roskam's debut effort BULLHEAD (2011), Matthias Schoenaerts sports pretty much the same expression throughout the film.  But there's so much going on behind that one expression that it's a deeply affecting performance.

Just how deeply this Oscar-nominated film itself affects you will depend on how involved you get with Schoenaerts' character, since most of the stuff going on around him isn't all that interesting.  We find that one of the things Jacky inherited from his dad is the use of illegal hormones to make his cows bigger and fatter, with Jacky forced to deal with shady underworld types in order to secure them.  But when a "hormone cop" is murdered while on the case, random circumstances cause Jacky to become a suspect in the subsequent investigation. 

How the dead cop's bullet-riddled car fails to be disposed of properly by the bad guys, and how its fancy tire rims incriminatingly end up on Jacky's brother's car are part of what turns out to be a long, drawn-out, and only mildly compelling rural crime story.  But just when I was beginning to wonder if BULLHEAD was ever going to go somewhere, it does--shockingly. 

When the story flashes back to a pivotal event in Jacky's childhood, we discover why the brawny but obviously deeply troubled young man is always shooting himself up with hormones just like the animals on his farm, and why he always has the look of someone on the verge of either exploding or imploding. 

The childhood incident is heartbreaking, with a kind of implied violence that may have some viewers calling it quits.  It shapes his entire life afterwards, turning him into a quietly seething hunk of repressed rage, conflicting impulses, and, worst of all, an unrequited yearning for the kind of life he can never have. 

Jacky's only friend is Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), who, as a boy, witnessed his attack but was forced by his father not to testify for fear of reprisal.  Perceval gives the film's other fine performance, as the guilt-ridden Diederik, now a police informant, tries to make it up to Jacky by deflecting suspicion from him the best he can.  The nervous Diederik and his dealings with the cops, particularly a crusty female detective (Barbara Sarafian) and her handsome partner (Tibo Vandenborre) who takes advantage of Diederik's homosexual attraction to him, help make the crime drama stuff interesting whenever Jacky is offscreen.

Revenge against the brutal bully who injured him and an obsession with his beautiful sister Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy) fuel Jacky's actions in the movie's latter half, and we wonder just how far his increasingly confused mental and emotional state will cause him to go.  By now, Matthias Schoenaerts' restrained but inwardly volatile performance has become fascinating to watch--his character is like a modern-day version of Boris Karloff's Frankenstein monster, desperately seeking the normality and acceptance that he can never have due to his violent nature and isolation from the rest of humanity. 

The DVD from Image Entertainment and Drafthouse Films is in 2.35:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 sound (Dutch and French with English subtitles).  Extras include a director's commentary, interviews with director Roskam and star Schoenaerts, a "making-of" featurette, a trailer, the  2005 short film "The One Thing to Do" starring a much less bulky Schoenaerts, a digital download code, and a 16-page illustrated booklet with comments on the film by Michael Mann and Udo Kier.  (Note to the squeamish: the film depicts the actual C-section birth of a calf.)

With BULLHEAD, one might assume (incorrectly, I think) that Roskam has made a bland, slow-moving crime drama whose saving grace is its main character.  But everything that happens around that character is incidental.  The movie is all about Jacky and what's going on behind those deceptively lifeless eyes and that seemingly unfeeling bulk which he endlessly injects with chemicals in a vain effort to compensate for what has been taken away from him. 

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