In February 2011 Bullhead, the directing debut of Michaël R. Roskam, was released in Belgian cinemas and enjoyed success with both viewers and critics. Later that year it was selected and lauded by multiple international festivals. The director Roskam appeared on the “Ten directors to watch” list of Variety and it’s rumored that Hollywood is interested in Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust&Bone), who plays the lead in the film. But all this praise for a rather small Belgian movie pales in comparison to the news released a few days ago. Bullhead has been nominated for the “Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film”. It is in the light of this latest bit of praise that I went to revisit this tale of animals and hormones but above all of one’s humanity.
When you hear the opening monologue of the movie you already sense you’re in for something rather special. Beneath the surface it already hints at the deeper themes of the movie in a profound but delicate way.
You might’ve heard about Schoenaerts who gained 25 kilos of muscle for the role. And while this may sound impressive one might argue that the role of an actor is not (only) one of physical transformation. But transformation is more than physical the movement, the look, the tics but predominantly the eyes. The praise Schoenaerts presentation received is no hyperbole, it is a full and complete character. And quite a meaty one at that.
The movie has excellent pace there is never a dull moment as the story slowly unfolds and brings you deeper and deeper in its ever escalating tragedy. The finale especially is a powerful piece of cinematography, it almost feels hallucinatory, with powerful acting and beautiful camerawork. Speaking of which, the camerawork throughout the whole movie is splendid it doesn’t take the forefront by quick montages and flashes of imagery but just produces powerful images with panning slowly and making great use of depth of field which creates ghostlike visions that suite the overall tone and story rather nicely. The music has the same use keeping a low profile; but still contributing in acquiring that overall powerful emotional feel.
Well after all this praise I have to admit the movie is not without its faults. The gags with the two Walloon mechanics are in the vain of a typical French comedy (be it of a lesser comedic quality) which is indeed an acquired taste. And some might say they feel a bit out of place.
You might’ve noticed I didn’t provide a synopsis of the story as is customary in reviews. I did this for two reasons.What I particularly like about the movie is its deeper underlying story. At first it might seem like a regular cops an gangster movie with some side story, but it is quite a bit more than that. It is a movie which touches on a few difficult themes and an intricate way. It is a story about the border between feeling human and the bestial. What it is like, to not feel normal and the obsessions it creates. And it tells this using a strong, hypnotic narrative, supported by equally strong visuals. A movie with balls, powerful but fragile at the same time.