Bullhead (2011) – Michael R. Roskam

Strange crime picture, Bullhead. Weird, really, and I liked it. Stay with me for a moment. In our first scene we have a gangster threatening an elderly cattle farmer. “Won’t sell us your cattle anymore, huh? Just make sure those cows are at market next Sunday.” And he roughs him up a little bit. I don’t think I need to tell you that this is all completely and deadly serious. Then the movie drops that for a second, moves on to a political murder and the selling of a car with a bullet hole and the discussion of the possible connection amongst the junk dealers regarding who bought it. Finally we arrive on Jacky (Matthais Schoenaerts) and the film finds its center. Oh, yeah, even before the cattlemen is roughed up we get this voiceover to start the film; “No matter what you do or think, one thing is for sure, you’re always fucked. Now, tomorrow, next week or next year, until the end of time: fucked.” You see, this is a movie about the illegal trade of growth-hormone-laced beef but in story only, it’s really about pessimism, and how, for Jacky it seems, you’re always fucked.

Wait, I just wrote the phrase “illegal trade of growth-hormone-laced beef,” didn’t I? Well, how about this phrase; “notorious West-Flemish beef trader?” Get ready for that one. Seems Jacky, a farmer whose hulking frame been benefitting from the extra steroids in the beef for years is embroiled into the shadowy world of a notorious West-Flemish beef trader at a race-track and he proposes a deal, but Jacky sees someone that stirs something in him, it’s Diederik, who was intimately involved in Jacky’s testicular mutilation 20 years ago. Yep, testicular mutilation. A ten-year-old Jacky was held down and had his balls smashed with a stone and when the doctor informed his parents about how injections of testosterone were going to play a large role in Jacky’s life from now on, his mother has only one question; “Is he gay now?” Fantastic.

See, Bullhead, from Belgium, reminded me in the best ways of another truly strange Oscar-nominated foreign film from recent years Greece’s Dogtooth (2009), though Dogtooth was much stranger, but they shared this ability to have me breathlessly recount the weirdness. That’s why it’s a shame that Bullhead spends it’s last half being an overcomplicated and mundane thriller that ties together the political assassination and a little bit of revenge.  When the movie becomes routine we realize how convoluted the whole thing and how little time is spent on characterization. Yes, we know a lot about Jacky but we’re not really sure who he is. The movie needs to let its freak flag fly. Still, I liked large sections of it (certainly the bitter hatred between the Flemish and, the other kinds of Belgians, I guess) but I wish it would have kept the strangeness through to the end. In this story though, it’s certainly not the cows who are mad.

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