Saturday, February 25, 2012
Dir. Michael R. Roskam
3.5 out of 5
"Let me tell you about coincidence," bellows a police officer in Bullhead when her informant starts making excuses: "Things are as they are!" That's the general sentiment of this fatalistic movie, one where people keep making the same mistakes, where the strong oppress the weak with impunity, and where the weak are - in the words of the film's opening narration - "until the end of time...fucked." Matthais Schoenaerts stars as an intimidating Flemish cattle farmer who gets tangled up in the seamy side of the Belgian beef trade. His point of entry is a shady veterinarian (Frank Lammers) who persuades him to strike a deal with members of the "hormone mafia" - peddlers of the bovine growth agents widely used in the U.S. but outlawed in Europe. Schoenaerts soon crosses paths with a long-lost childhood friend (Jeroen Perceval), now a lackey for one of the agricultural crime syndicates, an encounter that dredges up old animosities stemming from a violent and senseless act of hatred committed twenty years before.
Bullhead plays like a novel with an omniscient point of view, but its heart clearly lies with Schoenaerts, a steroid user whose swollen muscles and lumbering gait mimic the cattle constantly observed in the background of the film's rural locations. His plight not so subtly rhymes with the animals', pumped full of chemicals that alter his physique and his even temperament, a slab of meat bred for a singular purpose. He knows more than he lets on about how to operate with criminals and lowlifes - mainly, that they can't be trusted - but a normal social life is out of the question, at least until Perceval's reappearance encourages Schoenaerts to stop repressing the memories of his childhood trauma. This leads to several ill-fated attempts to connect with his childhood crush (Jeanne Dandoy), the daughter of a high-level gangster who works in a perfume shop. There's a bracingly awkward scene in that shop where Dandoy, unaware of Schoenaerts' identity, cheerfully counsels him on what brand of aftershave to buy. The surprisingly hardy adage about putting lipstick on a pig is nicely applied here.
That's also not a bad way to describe the film's shortcomings, as director Michael R. Roskam tries to slather the style of a kinetic, multi-layered crime caper onto a stark character study. At its best, Bullhead's portrait of a moody loner struggling to separate revenge and redemption recalls Drive, but Roskam is markedly less concerned about straying from his vision to please the crowd. Several of the goofy gangsters are like first drafts of characters from a Tarantino script - a pair of irritating car mechanics meant as comic relief are by far the worst offenders. And the air of inevitability cultivated in the plot and the visuals make several potentially tense moments fall flat (one character's revealed sexuality is apparently meant to shock and instead lands with a resounding thud). However, Schoenaerts' tortured, eccentric performance is something to behold, transforming a decent thriller into a desperate plea for understanding from a creature trapped in a vicious cycle of exploitation.