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Bullhead | Review

Grabbing the bull by the horns.

The feature debut of Belgian filmmaker Michael Roskam, Bullhead, plays like a Dick Francis novel on steroids. On the surface, a seedy, noir exercise, concerning the hormone mafia underworld, quickly turns into a twisted bildungsroman with multifaceted dimensions concerning a tragic protagonist and his occupation.

Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Jacky Vanmarsenille, a Limburg cattle farmer, caring for a cattle farm that used to be run by his father, an expert since childhood at steroid manipulation and cattle. A hulking, monstrously bulky man, it’s evident that Jacky is himself a heavy user of steroids, his foreboding personage often exploding in furious mood swings. When a veterinarian approaches Jacky to make a deal with a West-Flemish beef trader, the police officer in charge of investigating Jacky’s dangerous new client ends up murdered, setting in motion a chain of events that brings Jacky face to face with traumatic events from his past when a man sent to clean up the situation turns out to be a childhood friend of Jacky’s. As the film begins to intermix flashbacks of Jacky’s childhood with his present circumstances, we learn why Jacky has tragically become a creature as equally physically manipulated as his steroid laced cattle.

While an initial glance would suggest that Bullhead simply sets out to deliver what it says it will as a seedy underworld thriller, it becomes an increasingly complex character study that touches on consumption and masculinity in intriguing and surprising ways. A dreary, dark and sullen landscape graces the cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis, along with a great original score and a standout bleary club scene blaring Andrea Doria’s “Bucci Bag” as Jacky double fists his vodka before violently and viciously beating a man he believes to be competing for a woman they have a mutual interest in. It’s this intense and utterly captivating performance by Matthias Schoenaerts as Jacky that completely anchors the film. Having put on 60 pounds of muscle for the role and undergoing as drastic a physical transformation as any Hardy, Bale, or De Niro, Schoenaerts is exceptional as the explosive, testosterone junky cattle farmer. Likewise, director Roskam has infused his supporting characters with depth and a surprising amount of detail, most notably with Jacky’s estranged childhood friend, Diedrick (Jeroen Perceval) as an informer with an intriguingly complex relationship to his police contacts. Perhaps best of all, Roskam doesn’t choose to wrap up a variety of loose ends and minor subplots introduced throughout his dense narrative. And yeah, it makes organic milk look real wholesome.

Reviewed on November 9th at the 2011 AFI Film Festival – New Auteurs Programme.

124 Min.

Rating 3.5 stars

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Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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