Michael R. Roskam’s Bullhead is a dark, quiet, and intense meditation on masculinity. It is a movie that comes to the crossroads of power and sex, and explores if a man can have one if he’ll never have the other. Despite relying on a bland crime-drama, Bullhead crafts a fascinating character study, and Matthias Schoenaerts powerful performance combined with Roskamn’s thoughtful, intelligent direction manages to turn frustration into captivation, and predictability into tragedy.
Jacky Vanmarsenille (Schoenaerts) makes a living selling steroid-enriched beef to a local mafia. Meanwhile, the gangsters have recently promoted Diederik Maes (Jeroen Perceval), Jacky’s old friend, and, unbeknownst to the mobsters and Jacky, a police informant. While Diederik tries to protect the secrets of his present (he’s also a closeted homosexual), Jacky is tethered to a life-changing tragedy in his past. While the two have grown apart since the tragedy, their business dealings throw them back together and Diederik tries to steer the investigation away from Jacky, who also wants nothing to do with Diederik’s partners and their riskier ventures. But the crime drama is secondary to being wrapped up in Jacky’s emotional state, and Bullhead keeps driving us down into his fractured identity.
The distributors and producers have worked to keep Jacky’s tragic incident a secret from those who haven’t seen the movie, and so I will not spoil it here. I’ll simply say that the incident is a crime not only against Jacky, but a crime against nature, specifically, the nature of masculinity. It is this “nature-of-masculinity” question that makes Bullhead such a compelling experience. In order to keep his over-muscled physique intact, Jacky is completely reliant on steroids. His body is a cruel joke that he can never escape. He shadowboxes alone even though there’s not a single person in the movie who could best his physical strength. Detached from emotion or human quality, Jacky has more in common with the personality of his livestock. He is desperate to be both human and an animal, and his tragic past keeps him from being either. Again, I must dodge some of the larger questions of Bullhead, but I assure you that this is a movie that will keep your head spinning long after you leave the theater.
Since the film lives off its main character, it required an equally powerful performance and Schoenaerts delivers. There’s more than enough brooding, distant looks from Jacky, but Schoenarts does a tremendous job of conveying Jacky’s desperation and hopelessness. We wonder how many times Jacky has ever allowed himself to smile, and if his life wasn’t changed by a horrible event, but limited to the point where he’s nothing but a shell. We believe Jacky as a man struggling to stay alive by chemicals and a sliver of hope, but Bullhead is a tragedy, and despite Jacky’s anger and violence, Schoenaerts keeps our sympathy.
Equally important is Roskam’s quiet, powerful direction. The film is filled with some gorgeous cinematography, but it’s always used to punctuate the story rather than call attention to itself. Roskam’s direction is remarkable in how it turns negative aspects like frustration and predictability into compelling dramatic devices. Through Jacky, those qualities torment the character rather than the audience. Roskam only falters when he goes for an overt move, like the obvious parallel between Jacky and his livestock. Bullhead is a subtle movie and it derives its power not through big moments, but through the restrained, meditative ones.
But in order to tell its character-driven story, Bullhead has to use a serviceable albeit somewhat distracting crime narrative. Diederik bolsters the film’s themes, but there’s less shading and he’s bogged down in an uninteresting narc-plotline. Buffoonish attempts to hide tires that link back to a crime, or the details of the “hormone underground mafia” help to color the world, but add little to the more compelling aspects of the story.
Thankfully, Bullhead rarely loses sight of its subtext and main character. Roskam has thoughtfully cracked open and examined how we define masculinity and how that definition functions in both nature and society. More importantly, he finds drama in the corruption of masculinity and the desperation to fix what can never be repaired. The film purposely shares many traits of its protagonist, but unlike Jacky, Bullhead doesn’t strike out of fear and denial. It strikes because it wants you to feel his pain. Bullhead is a crushing blow.