Bullhead was Belgium’s Academy entry in 2011. It’s a pretty good flick with strong performances, particularly from the lead (Matthias Schoenaerts), but it’s one of those movies – Tell No One is another that comes to mind – that’s a bit too slick, and just doesn’t seem to grab me in the same way it does other people.
My problems with Tell No One were a few: the flashback structure got annoying, the payoff wasn’t as interesting as the set-up, and the look was glossier than it felt it should have been. I have almost the exact same problems with Bullhead, save the payoff issue (which I quite like in this film).
Schoenaerts plays Jacky Vanmarsenille. He’s a juicing, impotent beefy man. He’s beefy-big and into beef sales. He’s also involved in the illicit cattle steroid market and has an indirect tie to the murder of a policeman.
If anything, Bullhead is a character study first, and Schoenaerts Jacky is one troubled study. Every little detail – the way he chews (very cow-like), the way he stares – ooze pent up anger. Opposite Jacky is Diederik Mas (Jeroen Perceval – equally as good here). Diederik and Jacky have a past. They’ve known one-another since childhood, but are unexpectedly reunited amidst the shady wheelings and dealings. If Jacky silently rages, Diederik is silently bitter. His lowered eyebrow stare is surprisingly scary for a man of his relatively small stature.
Director Michael R. Roskam uses some interesting technique. Here’s one example that he utilizes more than once. At a new location, Roskam cuts first to a door. No one else is in frame. And then the door “magically” opens:
It’s a very pretty shot – good decision to let that top-light blind the lens – and obviously symbolic. Is something that is this non-narrative – that functions purely as a visual symbol – a good or bad thing? It’s a very intentional, albeit small, pause in the story, but it doesn’t feel particularly heavy-handed. That’s because it doesn’t point to any one and/or pre-existing read (ie this isn’t an overtly religious or political symbol). If anything, this could just be an establishing shot (where/when we are). Or it can be the void in Jacky’s life (pretty bad interpretation there). Regardless, it’s enough to be noticed, but not too much to detract from that which surrounds it.
There are things that I quite like about the look of Bullhead. Here’s a still that was used in the marketing:
Keeping Jacky soft, placing him against the window, the muted, yellow/green color scheme. This all rhymes together. When in this shot he aggressively punches and the focus instantly pulls, it feels like he’s performing. And he is – he’s performing for the camera, but also for himself and what will – at the end of the film – be a pretty dramatic final stage.
There are other great scenes. Here’s a quick look at a club scene where Jacky stalks a woman he’s (rather childishly) obsessed with. It’s made up mostly of point-of-view, and some “psychological close-ups”.
Start basic. Jacky looks:
The smart move. We get closer to Jacky (moving inside his head, etc):
And then his exaggerated POV (in that it’s tighter on her). But this is also a great edit choice. Cut to her when she laughs:
And then this last cut is quite effective. Even closer to Jacky. We’re no longer concerned with cutting back to the woman. We’re done with the POV. We’re inside Jacky’s head. It’s well-timed. We’ve already established his obsession, now let’s get on with dealing with the man himself.
This stuff above is all great. Still, my major complaint with Bullhead is the flashback structure. There’s some heavy stuff in the flashbacks. And it’s appropriately expository. But it feels so hackneyed and convenient. I’d much prefer to have learned about Jacky’s past in the present.
As a boy, Jacky was hit in the genitals with a rock. He has no sexual organs now. Wouldn’t it be a much more interesting scene if we saw him trying to use the restroom, or have sex and failing? There are hints of this, but the reveal is in flashback. It’s much less interesting that way.
Plus, the look of the flashbacks feels tired. As I mentioned earlier – it’s glossy. It feels too put together. Yeah, before the incident it’s a relatively happy childhood for Jacky, but the flashbacks are still a painful look at his past. They should not only be painful story-wise, but also visually.
There are other problems. Two characters (mechanics who inadvertently allow everything to fall apart) are played over-the-top and feel pulled from a Jeunet film. The scene where they’re interrogated suddenly chases pace and mood to a quick crosscut that’s comical, where we’re given repeat information that any decent viewer should already be well aware of.