“… I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and, and claw, but only at the air, only at each other. And for all of it, we never budge an inch.”
– from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”(1960)
atching Belgian crime noir film “Bullhead”(2011) is like observing a huge dormant volcano convulsively seething and grumbling inside. He wants to forget about what has been eating him, but it is impossible to get away from it, because that made who he is now. Even if it is buried below and everyone is silent about that as if nothing ever had happened, it never goes away; it is bound to burst through the surface, but there is no easy way of release possible for this miserable man violently writhing in his own personal trap.
He is a young cattle farmer named Jacky Vanmarsenile(Matthias Shoenearts). He will remind you of those aggressive, bulky bouncers you have seen at nightclubs, and, right from his first appearance, he does not look like a nice guy at all. He comes to one of his neighbor farmers and enforces him to sell his cattle only to the farm managed by Jacky’s uncle. With his imposing physique and threatening attitude, it is not easy to say no to Jacky, whose family seems to have some influence around Limburg, Belgium.
And this is not a sole dirty activity in his daily life. With the assistance from a crooked veterinarian(Frank Lammers), he and others at the farm get the growth hormone and other illegal substances, and they periodically inject them to their cattle for fattening them in a shorter time. They have been doing this since he was young – only difference is that they use the substances which are less likely to be noticed by the authorities than before.
A big irony is that Jacky has been ‘fattening’ himself in the pretty much same way he has done to his livestock. Considering his bulky appearance, it is not so surprising to see him routinely taking several pills and injecting substances to his own body in his private room, which has a small refrigerator full of the pills and vials always ready for him. After that, probably because he wants to vent what’s inside him, he does some shadowboxing, but his disaffected face never looks relaxed. There is something not right about him. He always becomes uncomfortable in front of the possibility of sex or relationship with woman. Even when others just talk about it, he can’t stand it, and that usually triggers his violent side in one way or other.
Though it cannot be denied that he is a substance abuser, his problem is deeper than that. Through the mediation by his veterinarian, Jacky gets involved with the crime organization in West Flanders. In the first meeting with the boss Marc Decuyper(Sam Louwyck) and his associates, Jacky comes across his old childhood friend Diederik(Jeroen Perceval). It is not Diederik’s intention, but his presence immediately awakens the old wound in the past Jacky has avoided. He becomes agitated and furious. His instinct tells him this is not a good deal.
What happened to them in their past? The movie is very frank about that, for it instantly goes right back to their relatively normal childhood before the horrible incident happened to young Jacky in 20 years ago. They were ordinary kids well aware of what their dads did for their business. Like any kids at their age, they began to show interest in girls and sex. On one day, they became targets of a mentally-disturbed bully whose sister Jacky had some crush on. The movie thankfully refrains itself from showing the graphic details of this shocking moment; thanks to the good performances from young child actors, you will understand how much it has traumatized Jacky both physically and psychologically to make him into such a ticking bomb.
Meanwhile, his instinct turns out to be right, because there is already a serious trouble in their underworld. An undercover cop investigating hormone trafficking is killed, and the police are determined to find who is behind the murder. They know Decuyper is somehow associated with this case, so, along with others including a duo of hapless small-time criminals who is given a job beyond their intelligence, Jacky is logically drawn to their attention.
This is the director/writer Michael R. Roskam’s first work, and he makes a slow-burning noir film with his confident control of style and storytelling. The story seems to meander at the beginning, but it patiently positions the people of crime world around Jacky like spreading the net around him during the first half. We come to understand the world he is stuck in and, above all, what makes him tick. When the net is finally about to close upon him, it goes without saying that there is no easy way out for him. Thanks to cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis who provides the gloomy atmosphere over the wide green fields with fatalistic undertone, what eventually happens is accepted as something fateful.
The physical presence of Matthias Schoenaerts, who gained around 27-kg(60 pounds) for his role, is utterly unforgettable, but he does far more than bulking up his body. His quiet but intense performance slowly reveals a tragic man hiding and seething behind his armor more vulnerable than it looks. Even one word he hears or one small casual behavior he glimpses hits him hard. He remembers how helpless he was. He also remembers how helpless his father was at that time(A brief moment in the film shows that he is now more helpless than before). Although he goes to the extreme to forget all about that, but none of his pain or complex is disappeared. His hurtful past remains inside his mind and it continues to torment him. At one point, he tries to settle the score with a guy responsible for his misery, but he is frustrated to see that there is no point in beating a mad dog.
There is a possible bright spot in his depressing life. He has been obsessed with the girl he liked during his childhood. though he has never met her again since that incident. Much to his disappointment, Lucia(Jeanne Dandoy) does not recognize him when he comes to the perfume shop where she works. After meeting him again at the nightclub(he stalks her to that place), she later realizes who he is. Remembering well about ‘the accident’, she feels sorry for him, but she soon learns his dark, monstrous side beneath his shyness. During the moment when he scares her while driven to see her for the last time, you may recall that strange relationship between a beautiful woman and a beastly man who loves her in Claude Chabrol’s “Le Boucher”(1970) – but, in this case, the situation is painfully far simpler and clearer to both of them.
I think there are several aspects in the film that escape my notice due to the cultural gap, though I know that there is the regional/social difference between Wallonia and Flanders in Belgium. The movie could have been a little more interesting if there had been more space for the supporting characters, who are well played by the good actors surrounding Schoenaerts.
Jeroen Perceval is especially notable as a man who is forced to juggle lots of balls in the air. Diederik turns out to be a truer friend than we expected, but he has lots of things to take care of for maintaining his position. He has to do whatever his boss orders, so he deals with his friend still angry about him. Moreover, he is an informer to the police, so he must give them any valuable information about the murder while trying to save his unfortunate friend out of the imminent trouble to come. I especially like the way the movie deals with the interesting interaction between Diederik and two detectives, Eva and Antony(Barbara Sarafian and Tibo Vandenborre). As a ‘bad cop’, Eva does not tolerate any bullshit about ‘coincidences’ with her street-smart no-nonsense attitude; as a ‘good cop’. Antony cajoles Diederik with homosexual appeal to get anything useful from him.
“Bullhead” is Belgium’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 84th Academy Awards in 2012. It starts like a routine thriller but it ultimately reveals itself as a sad, compelling character study about a man shaped by the environment and his destructive complex. In the end, what has been repressed for years and years is finally exploded with desperate brutality. At that moment, Roskam pulls out all the stops, and the result is the powerful moment both brutal and harrowing. No matter how much he writhes with fury, this man will never get out of the route set for him, like the animals led to slaughter. Unlike them, he knows about what will happen, but does it make any difference? This is the man to whom Dr. Temple Grandin will feel a lot of sympathy.