30 Jan

Programme Note: Bullhead


Bullhead, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at last year's Academy Awards (losing to A Separation), is writer/director Michaël R Roskam's debut feature, an intricate crime drama that takes inspiration from events that took place in Belgium in the 1990s, and film noir. At its core, however, Bullhead is a character study, and a film about questionable morality. In Roskam's words, ‘it's not about the bad guys against the good guys. Everybody is a bad guy, in a way. But there's [sic] good parts in a bad guy. It's not black and white.’[1]

In 1995 Belgium was rocked by the murder of a veterinary inspector for the Food and Drug Administration, which revealed a vast network of illegal hormone trafficking, corruption, and gangster-like activity. The term ‘hormone mafia’ was coined to describe the farmers involved, a phrase that is used frequently throughout the film. Roskam was inspired by this event, and began writing a screenplay with specific intentions to make a film noir. For him, this meant he needed two things; ‘a crime scene and a good tragedy. I got the crime scene and then I started to elaborate on the themes that interest me like destiny and loyalty and friendship and manhood and loss of innocence.’[2]

While Roskam focused his attention on this larger narrative initially, Bullhead's biggest success is in its focus on Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts), a cattle farmer who injects both his herd and himself with copious amounts of steroids. Following the murder of a federal agent by one of his business associates, he finds himself being dragged further into the underground dealings of the ‘hormone mafia’ and the police's sting operation. Jacky is a complex character, damaged both physically and emotionally through an event in his childhood that is revealed in a shocking, harrowing flashback. The aftermath of this event has dictated all aspects of his adult life, despite it being largely unmentioned; as the opening lines, spoken via voice-over, state, ‘sometimes in a man's life stuff happens that makes everyone go quiet. So quiet that no one even dares talk about it. Not to anyone, not even to themselves. Not in their head and not out loud. Not a fucking word. Cos everything somehow got stuck.’

Schoenaerts is an impressive presence; in Britain he has already received acclaim for his performance in Rust and Bone (2012), due to the delayed release schedule of Bullhead. Over the course of a year he bulked up considerably, with his physical appearance drawing comparisons to that of Tom Hardy's in Bronson (2008), but his portrayal of Jacky has more substance than mere body mass. Stooped and skulking, about to snap at any moment, he is both intimidating and unsettling; Jacky is clearly a damaged individual, tortured by some inner demon that has transformed him from bullied to bully. His steroid abuse takes place in his bathroom – the only room in the farmhouse shown on screen, his sanctuary and the one place his dark secret is exposed – and it is here that Jacky reveals the conflicting traits of his personality: vulnerable, naked, curled up in a foetal position in the bath tub in one scene; swinging powerful punches like Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (1980), displaying his impressive strength and overt masculinity in another. Schoenaerts imagined the character as ‘half-man, half-bull,’[3] a concept that is reiterated by Jacky himself towards the film's conclusion, as he looks upon his herd of muscle-bound cattle and reflects on the similarities between the bulls and himself.

Bullhead's strength is this character study, but Jacky's life is inextricably connected, and affected, by the larger, political events happening around him. The similarities between these criminal farmers and gangsters are obvious and deliberate; small groups of men who meet at empty racetracks, eat giant, bloody steaks, and discuss their dealings in hushed tones, celebrating their successes by visiting local brothels, while the police follow, always a step behind. The two narrative strands, that of Jacky's internal, personal conflict, and that of the ‘hormone mafia’ and the police investigation, while undeniably linked, do not always cohere successfully. Roger Ebert, who found Schoenaerts' performance and Jacky's story similar to that in Shame (2011), commented that Roskam's decision to include this latter narrative made the film ‘more confusing than it needs to be. At its center [sic] is a man and his obsession, and the way hormone use has driven him out of control. That is more than enough... I'm damned if I could follow the scheming involving the mechanics and those two sets of stolen auto tires.’[4]

Stephen Holden agrees with this critique; he praises Roskam's directing and the film's ‘menacing noirish ambience’ and believes Bullhead to be, at its core, a story about testosterone, but states, ‘even though the movie's two main aspects – Jacky's plight and the criminal activity – involve steroids, they don't mesh. As the crime story develops, it turns into a far-fetched quasi-incestuous drama that leaves frustrating holes in the narrative scheme.’[5] Like Ebert, Holden praises the close character study of Jacky: ‘When the movie is focused on Jacky's desperate and futile attempts to be superman, it becomes a stark tragedy of masculinity and its chemical boundaries.’[6] Bullhead is, as Holden writes, all about testosterone. The female cop in charge of the investigation demonstrates a typically male ruthlessness and hardness, while the object of Jacky's affection is revealed to be crucial in his adult obsession with masculinity and his anxiety regarding loss of the same. The film is also, as Roskam has stated, a tragedy – and to ensure there is no doubt as to this fact, the voice-over presents its central thesis in the opening moments: ‘Whatever you do, and whatever you think, one thing you can be sure of: you're always fucked. Now, tomorrow, next week and next year, until the end of time. Fucked.’

Becky Bartlett
Researcher (University of Glasgow) and journalist
January 2013


[1] Roskam, Michaël R, interviewed by Matt Singer. 'Bullhead's director and star steer the conversation' http://www.ifc.com/fix/2012/02/bullhead-interview (Accessed 30 January 2013)

[2] Roskam, Michaël R, interviewed by Jeremy Kirk. 'Interview: “Bullhead” Director Michael Roskam & Matthias Schoenaerts' http://www.firstshowing.net/2012/interview-bullhead-director-michael-roskam-matthias-schoenaerts/ (Accessed 30 January 2013)

[3] Ebert, Roger 'Bullhead' http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120229/REVIEWS/120229972 (Accessed 30 January 2013)

[4] Holden, Stephen 'A Raging Man, Ruled and Ruined by an Excess of Testosterone' http://movies.nytimes.com/2012/02/17/movies/bullhead-directed-by-michael-r-roskam.html?_r=0 (Accessed 30 January 2013)

[5] Ibid


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