Oscar nominee strays from strengths
Some movies manage to take you to a place you didn’t know existed - Oz, Narnia, Fargo. You sense that “Bullhead’’ has taken you someplace new, but you can’t quite put your finger on where. Yes, it’s 21st-century Belgium - Liège, West Flanders, Limburg - and, sure, the movie spends time on cattle farms and in auto repair shops. Early on, it even takes in the newly imposing physical presence of the actor Matthias Schoenaerts, whose character, a cattle farmer and part-time thug named Jacky Vanmarsenille, is introduced roughing up a gentleman until he accepts a business proposition. Jacky is then shown alone in his room, beaded with sweat, standing over an assortment of vials.
The correlation between the vials and the dull thickness of Jacky’s body is clear enough. (In some shots, his upper back can span the entire screen.) But you don’t know precisely what’s going on until a news reporter, having shown up at a murder scene, contributes some valuable perspective to the injections, threats, and vague air of menace. She tells us we’re not just in Belgium. We’re in the “hormone mafia underworld.’’ Which is one place I can say I never expected to find myself.
The scope of the underworld business guarantees that Michael R. Roskam’s first film is not purely about Jacky, and that’s a shame since little else that surrounds him is as fascinating as the character and Schoenaerts’s emotionally stunted performance. “Bullhead,’’ which is an Oscar nominee for foreign-language film, has enough strands of story for an epic tale. But Roskam appears more interested in trying to combine genres that don’t easily cohere. On one hand, the film’s a crime-thriller and police procedural. On the other, it’s about the lingering trauma of Jacky’s personal misfortune. The other hand is much stronger. Grim, overblown childhood flashbacks explain just how Jacky was introduced to hormone injections. They’re not unlike what his family has been illegally using on its cows.
The adult Jacky operates his Vanmarsenilles’ Limburg farm and has been working with a corrupt beef trader whose flunky, Ricky (Jeroen Perceval), remembers what happened to Jacky all those years ago. The best scenes in “Bullhead’’ occur between the giant man and his smaller, estranged friend. Very little is spoken between these two, but we know they share a secret. So there’s comedy in Jacky’s angry manhandling of Ricky, whom Jacky palms like a basketball. But Ricky’s guilty refusal to put up a fight is also touching. It’s the least he feels he can do.
If only Roskam had stuck with that central relationship. But on top of everything else, he adds Jacky’s involuntary rage and his yearnings for romance with a woman (Jeanne Dandoy) who runs a perfume shop and revenge against her brother. There is also Ricky’s double life as a homosexual and police informant attracted to one of the detectives (Tibo Vandenborre) trying to solve the murder. Eventually, you have the sinking feeling that parts of this movie exist only to facilitate others. Very little of what we see survives tests of logic or psychology. The parfumeuse, for instance, should remember him sooner than she does.
Amid the narrative noise and various nincompoops (a Flemish mechanic and his cousin come to mind) is a mysterious film about a strong, nearly silent type. Roskam is talented, but in wanting to impress us, he forces the issue. He should just trust his shot-making and his skill with actors. David Murgia has a few memorable appearances as a young lunatic. So does Sofie Sente as Jacky’s mother, and Barbara Sarafian, who plays a gruff detective, steals her handful of scenes.
They’re all in different movies, of course. Roskam doesn’t yet have the focus to unify them all. He lacks the vision (and the writing) you need to pull off a movie like this. We don’t know whether we’re watching a hormone mafia thriller or a tragic psychological melodrama. But, at least in “Bullhead,’’ we can’t be watching both at once.