Sunday, July 21, 2013

Film Review of Michael Roskam's "Bullhead"

When I first saw Michael R. Roskam’s violent, remarkably implacable and angry story “Bullhead,” I wasn’t sure if it would compare with other films that have arched into familiarly pointed and poignant, overbearing bodies whose beings have been washed over by the trials and tribulations that time and life are wrapped in. These types of suspenseful narratives imagine shadowy, three-dimensional characters who cannot help but be moody, grim, increasingly unhappy, and who will remain with us long after the film has ended.

Roskam pays respect to this type of character in “Bullhead,” in which Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts is coarse and brutish as Flemish cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille. Sunken and alienated by years of hormone and steroids addiction, and criminally-engaged in the growth hormone trade, the brawny Jacky is bound to sooner or later explode with all the accumulated rage and simmering fury that is stocked in his heart and ego.

Jacky is a profane candidate for being cured by a clear moral vision, for being someone who deep down in his heart and soul wants to be a good person living a decent life. But Jacky’s intense, edgy character, bordering on a chronic bruteness, and his exhaustingly smothered sexual energies and social resolve prevent him from being all he can be.

Instead, Jacky is invented by Michael Roskam as a social other, a man with a dampened spirit, and as an intemperately unviable member of what should be a peaceful, orderly polity. Jacky’s exceeding dependency of steroids only worsens Jacky’s slow descent into a dark corner from which there is no escape.

As good as Matthew Schoenaert is as Jacky, equally world-class is director Michael Roskam. With “Bullhead” he revives the crime film genre with an affected originality that is both subjective and reflective. Roskam’s Jacky isn’t a simple, narrow-minded thug who is out to intimidate and strong-arm others to do his will. The dysfunctional beauty of Roskam’s film is how he has managed to corroborate what social liberals believe about the most choleric of browbeaters, that they have a sensitive side that is hidden deep out of sight and attention.

This is the real tragedy of “Bullhead.” Jacky Vanmarsenille’s fate in life, taken out of his hands from an early age as it was, was never destined to have cracked apart as it did. In turning our attention at what happened to Jacky when he was a young boy, we perceive that he didn’t deserve what eventually happens to him in the film. Jacky can actually be said to possess a sense of pathos but that only holds back his better self if this paragon of routine disaffection and seething force can be said to have a better self.

We would like to see the brighter side of Roskam’s film, but one would be hard-pressed to find one. “Bullhead” is justifiably a self-exposing mass of chain reactions that link together to form a mighty struggle against the vagaries of human beings and the bad luck that can interweave with life in general. Some unfortunates, like Jacky Vanmarsenille, build a fortress of chemical attachment to cope with it all. But we all know how this choice ends; it is a barefoot climb down the ladder to perdition.

Roskam tries to take the sting out of the unsettlingly ambiguous dynamic between good and bad that arises out of “Bullhead” by implying that there can be a silver lining that informs even the most certifiable and combustible subsets of society. If viewers of Roskam’s film can internalize this, then they will embrace “Bullhead” as a major contribution to our understanding of the breathtakingly pathological mind.


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