March 21, 2013

BULLHEAD Is A Beautifully Tragic Superhero Tale

"My whole life, I've known nothing but animals." 


In Austin, Texas there is a movie theater called the Alamo Drafthouse.  It is a cathedral for cinema fans, a place where the purity of the movie watching experience is held as sacred above all else.  Their standards for picture and sound quality are top notch, they have full food and bar service at your seat, and they'll kick your ass to the curb for talking or texting during the movie.  (Their homemade no-texting PSAs are legendary.  Here's their latest courtesy of James Franco, although this one is easily my favorite.)  The Alamo is famous for doing vintage screenings, rolling roadshows and special themed events.  For example, they usually do a yearly screening of the three extended Lord Of The Rings movies back-to-back-to-back while serving all eleven hobbit meals.  They also host Fantastic Fest, by all rights one of the coolest film fests around.  I've been lucky enough to have one of my shorts screen there as part of a (different) festival, but I've never had the chance to actually visit the place in person.  

In 2010, Tim League and the rest of the Alamo team started a film distribution company called Drafthouse Films, grabbing up the rights to all sorts of cool and interesting films which might otherwise have trouble finding an audience.  Since their founding, Drafthouse has amassed a collection of about fifteen films and pretty much every one of them looks like an incredible find.  I haven't seen any of them yet, but I intend to work my way through the list over the course of these writings.  

Now, onto the screening.

Most of my favorite movies generally fall into two categories.

The first type of film is plot driven, presenting a number of different puzzle pieces and forcing the audience to spend the movie trying to determine what's going to happen next and how it's all going to fit together in the end.  Ocean's 11 (and indeed, most any heist movie) is a great example.  While it's filled with memorable characters, our chief concern the first time watching it is figuring out how Danny and friends are going to get away with all that money.  The characters are there to service the plot; they are a means to an end.

The second kind of movie is a character study.  We're presented with a compelling protagonist who's struggling against some sort of obstacle.  The actual plot may be extremely personal or intimate and it might even be a little predictable, but the central character (and the actor's performance) is so compelling that we can't look away.

Bullhead somehow manages to pull off a bit of both.  It's a heartbreaking character study with a dash of badass crime drama thrown in for good measure.

You may remember Bullhead as the Belgian film that was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award in 2012.  (At the time, it was a big win for Drafthouse Films, as it was only the third film they had acquired.)  The plot focuses on organized crime in the Belgian cattle industry.  There's a huge underground trade in illegal bovine steroids and hormones used to maximize beef production, all controlled by different mobsters.  When an undercover cop is gunned down, the police are determined to track down his killers and avenge the death of one of their own.  The crime element is certainly well constructed, with the whole case hinging on a set of stolen car tires in a way that recalls Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, one of my favorites.

But the heart of the movie lies with Jacky Vanmarsenille, an enforcer who just wants to protect his family's cattle farm and get out alive before the police turn him into the fall guy.  Jacky, played by newcomer Matthias Schoenaerts, is an absolute BEAST of a man.  He's a hulking brute, often silent and always reasoning out the situation before him.  His imposing size is hardly surprising, as we quickly discover that he regularly injects himself with illegal cattle hormones.

At first we assume that his injections are solely to make him more intimidating to his opponents, but eventually we flashback and witness the incident that set the rest of his life into motion.  When he was a boy, Jacky had a crush on the pretty Lucia Schepers.  He goes looking for her one day and instead finds Lucia's psychotic older brother Bruno and his friends masturbating to porno magazines in the woods.  Bruno chases Jacky down and, in a shockingly brutal sequence, pulls down Jacky's pants and pulverizes his testicles with a brick.  Bruno raises the brick and smashes it down repeatedly as Jacky lies twitching in the grass, his eyes rolling up in the back of his head.  As a result, Jacky is forced to take testosterone injections for the rest of his life to compensate for his violent castration.

On the other side of the coin we also have Diederik.  As kids, the scrawny Jacky and the heavyset Diederik were the best of friends while their fathers were business partners in the cattle trade.  Diederik was the only witness to Bruno's attack on Jacky, but his father would not let the boy testify to the police because the elder Schepers would've ruined their business.  And so the two drifted apart and remained strangers until their paths coincidentally cross again 20 years later in the midst of a deal with Diederik's shady gangster boss.

Matthias Shoenaerts gives a star-making performance here that is nothing short of breathtaking.  Physically Jacky's a monster, but emotionally he's essentially still a child, his psychological growth permanently halted that fateful day in the field.  He remains enamored of Lucia, who now runs a perfume store, but has no way to express that love.  Instead he watches her from a distance and keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and photographs.  After his attack, Jacky's mother asks the doctor if he's going to become gay, and while Jacky understandably remains a virgin well into adulthood, it's not clear whether he can actually have sex or if he's just ashamed to reveal his injury.  While Jacky usually burns off his "roid rage" by shadowboxing in his bedroom, he's still also prone to fits of violence.  He attacks two mechanics he believes to be scamming his brother and eventually follows a man he sees flirting with Lucia at a bar and beats him into a coma.

But credit also to Jeroen Perceval, as his portrayal of Diederik proves absolutely essential to the film's success.  Diederik unknowingly grows up to become the anti-Jacky.  He's a short, wiry, balding man who's become a mid-level gangster in the employ of the man responsible for the undercover cop's death.  But he's also secretly a police informant.  The last time we see Diederik as a boy, he's chasing down a police car trying to finally help Jacky and tell the truth about his friend's attack, but it's to no avail.  The experience was clearly just as formative for Diederik as it was for Jacky, but it sent him off in a totally different direction, spending the rest of his days ratting out criminals to make up for his failure to do so as a child.  He's also gay (and in love with one of his police contacts), which serves as a nice callback to Mrs. Vanmarsenille's fears about her own son.  Bullhead has a lot to say about what exactly defines manhood, and while Jacky is fascinating in his own right, it's the counterweight of Diederik that throws Schoenaerts's performance into stark relief.

While watching the movie I kept thinking of Jacky as a wounded animal.  He's powerful and intelligent, but also scared and desperate.  The film's final scene only reinforces that comparison.  However, upon reflection I can't shake the idea that Bullhead is actually structured like a dark, tragic superhero story.  We've got Jacky, our hero with near-superhuman strength and a tragic origin story that's akin to that of Spider-Man or Daredevil.  Lucia is the woman he loves but can never have, and Diederik is his nemesis, his polar opposite, the Mr. Glass to Jacky's "Unbreakable" David Dunn.  However, the interesting spin is that as we get further and further into the story, their roles essentially reverse.  Diederik proves to be the good guy, helping the authorities to bring bad guys to justice while Jacky becomes a destructive force that simply can't be caged.  And, much like some incarnations of Batman and The Joker, in the end Diederik feels responsible for his role in Jacky's "creation" and tries to help him pull his life back from the brink.  Hell, even the title feels like a comic book hero.

Bullhead is an absolutely incredible achievement and there's a good reason that Matthias Schoenaerts is already starting make his way into the mainstream of Hollywood.  Last year he starred opposite Marion Cotillard in Rust And Bone as well as an Oscar nominated short film.  Oh yeah, and Schoenaerts is currently working with his Bullhead director Michael R. Roskam on Animal Rescue, appearing alongside Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and James Gandolfini, working from a script by Dennis Lehane.

I'm sold.

Title: Bullhead
Director: Michael R. Roskam
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval, Jeanne Dandoy
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)

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