It is not very often that films come along that I add to my to-do list, as though they are essential to the short term course of my life plan. Its even less often that the first thing I have to do is go hugely out of my way to source the film because there is no tangible way to get near to seeing it in my country of residence. The UK usually does ok importing foreign language films at some point. You can usually count on Artificial Eye, Tartan or Optimum to take the hit.
Not so far, however, in the case of “Bullhead” (Rundskop), the Belgian contender for the foreign language Oscar, by first time director Michael R. Roskam, that beat the odds, taking the place of the Dardenne’s film “The Boy With the Bike” in the country’s Oscar race. There are currently a couple of trailers floating around for this film. Its been out and about since its native release in 2011, but it was the US trailer, put together no doubt with the help of indie archivers Drafthouse Films, that really caught my eye.
The pulsating fade-cuts and the hypersensitive sound design were heart-grabbing. The preoccupation with flesh and the landscape, the dark underexposed mafiosa scenes mixed into the melancholy sense of rural autarchy turned anarchy made me watch the trailer at least three times.
Once I had procured the film through a network of unnamed sources, in a way that was probably a little too similar to the hormone traficking world of the film, I sat down with breath-held anticipation.
Cut to the otherside, credits rolling, and I was left a little cold. Sure, Bullhead is a film that I will almost certainly revisit, even if simply to see the hulking, bestial performance of Matthias Schoenaerts as the central character Jacky. It is a good film, without doubt, but it is not the abnormal film I had hoped. I had wanted to be shocked and surprised, to come out a little emotionally burnt. Instead, the feeling was one of having spent too little time getting to understand Jacky, or really getting a sense of the moral matrix of the film. Things ended on a rather murky note and not one that convinced me to rethink my idea of clarity.
I did, however, really enjoy the messier elements of the film like the rather comic portrayal of the french speaking garage workers that added a clown like dimension to the drama and complemented the sense of narrative scale rather than detracted. This was the seesaw tragedy of renaissance playwriting where the world could remain absurd and messy despite the monomanical drives of revenge, power and regret that dominated the other strands of plot. It added at times a Jeunet-esque element to the dark brooding. Something almost self-consciously flippantly French to contrast with the heavy trudge of its Flemish counterparts.
If I was going to pick holes in the film, I would really like to flag up the very unlikely transformations of characters from childhood to adulthood. The hormone acceleration of Jacky might account for the transformation from cherubic child to bull-like, roman-nosed adult but the shift between the young and old Bruno, the dangerous, disabled son of the local Boss, was indescribably unlikely. And on top of that the ending had alot to answer for but then I should at least feel sorry for a film that must have kicked itself when it saw itself in the mirror of an uncannily similar penultimate scene in Nicholas Winding-Refyns “Drive”.
Drive, is infact very relevent to Bullhead because however good the film is my main grudge is that we have seen much of this before. What I hoped would be a sincere, brutal and eye-opening exploration of Belgian rural crime became another Tax-Driver-esque journey of revenge and delusion, desire and frustration wading about in crime and repercussion. A winning combination, without a doubt, but I was more surprised and excited by Jason Reitman’s take on individual disenfranchisement-cum-delusion in the uncomfortably dark Young Adult and even that felt its way round the tortured human body with more intuition than Bullhead ever could.
Nothing can take away the fact that there are central performances in Bullhead and a lateral thinking sense of direction that makes it a brilliant example of how to do a certain type of film very well. These elements make it a film that I won’t forget, or file away. At the same time, however, it will always be overshadowed in my mind by David Michod’s 2010 film “Animal Kingdom” where comedy and terrible tragedy sit uncomfortably on top of one another to provide a terrific sense of mounting tension. In Bullhead, much of the tension fails to get any further than Matthias Schoenaerts hormone inflated body and we are left not much more enlightened to the dark channels of capital that run in the vast ranches of Flanders fields.
I really want to feel a world exposed when I see a film that sets a familiar formula in an unfamiliar location. Bullhead just misses the mark but it does so with so much energy and conviction that I’ll be likely to be bumping heads with it again in the future.