[Flixist will be attending the 47th Chicago International Film Festival over the next few weeks. Be sure to follow along as we bring you reviews, interviews, and more from the longest-running competitive international film festival in the country. You can easily keep track of the coverage here.]
Plot twists in films have lost a bit of their luster. It’s come to a point where the audience is expecting that big surprise to justify and give “meaning” to the plot. Then, there are those rare moments where a film delivers a twist that not only affects the plot, but changes the film’s entire direction.
Bullhead is one such film.
Director: Michael R. Roskam
Bullhead is about Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), a meat trader involved in a drug ring where cows and bulls are illegally injected with growth hormones. After the death of a policeman investigating the ring, Jacky finds himself involved as two different groups within the ring attempt to figure out what led to the officer’s assassination. However, amidst all of this, Jacky is forced to face a ghost from his past as he’s reunited with Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), his childhood best friend and the only person outside of his family to know the secret he’s kept for the past 20 years.
From the first scene, Jacky is seen injecting himself with steroids, as if it wasn’t already evident by his bulging muscles. Right off the bat, you think to yourself, “Okay, Jacky’s kind of like the muscle guy and this film’s gonna be a crime-thriller. I’m into it.” However, as the film goes on, the plot begins to move away from the cop assassination and begins to focus on Jacky. Then comes the point in the film that won me over. I obviously won’t spoil it, but the scene in question was brilliantly shot: shaky perspective shifts, audio cut-outs, and one of the most harrowing first-person scenes I’ve seen in recent memory.
Suddenly, what you expected to be a crime-thriller begins a gritty, psychological character piece. The layers instantly open up and you catch yourself understanding the significance of the steroid-addled cattle and their keeper. You find yourself instantly empathizing with Jacky and truly understanding his drive. It’s the kind of plot twist M. Night Shyamalan wishes he were capable of telling.
Perceval’s Diederik serves as the perfect sheepish complement to Schoenaerts’ bull-headed Jacky. The film rests on Schoenaerts’ portrayal of Jacky, of which he had to endure a Christian Bale-esque physical transformation to attain. The dedication to the character shows not only physically, but emotionally as well. Schoenaerts’ empty facial expression illustrates the detachment Jacky feels to his surroundings, given his secret.
On a technical standpoint, the film is rife with harsh shadows and very bland locales. Outside of the plot-shifting scene, there isn’t much stylization. It works better this way, though, because the cinematography lends itself well to the overall gritty tone that makes the film feel both realistic and sensational at the same time.
Bullhead takes its time to build the real conflict in the film, but once it begins to transpire, it hits you like a boulder to the balls. You never would guess that this is writer/director Michael R. Roskam’s feature-length debut. Sure, there are some bumps along the way, but for a debut film to carry such a level of gravitas is a testament to his future as a filmmaker. It’s been selected as the Belgian entry for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film for the next Academy Awards, so I can guarantee this won’t be the last time you hear of it.