Bullhead is up for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars, but wasn’t released stateside until a couple of weeks ago. It’s a strange anomaly of a film, and one that ultimately has a little too much going on for its own good.
Bullhead is set against the world of an animal-hormone mafia in Belgium, where the cattle farming Vanmarsenilles have turned to illegal hormone injections to increase the size of their cows. Jacky has taken over the family business, and there’s an interesting parallel to the animals in that he himself takes hormone injections and, as a result, is physically enormous, even resembling a muscular bull. The film begins as a fairly straight-forward crime drama, but before long Jacky’s criminal involvement has led a friend from childhood back into his life, while a police investigation widens to include a focus on the Vanmarsenilles. We witness some illuminating flashbacks to Jacky’s childhood and a trauma that informs his adult life, as well as an unnecessary sub-plot involving a stolen car that gets far too much screen time.
Bullhead is part character study and part crime drama, but it also splits time with the ongoing police investigation. There’s an event that happens about a third of the way through the film, and knowing too much about it going into the film, I was worried it might be the kind of narrative shock-stunt that could overwhelm the rest of the movie. Happily this is not the case, and Bullhead is strong enough that the story point ultimately serves the characters. The real problem is that there’s simply one narrative perspective too many at work here. If it were more of a straight crime film, we really wouldn’t require all of the time spent exploring Jackie’s psyche. But ultimately this is his story, as the third act spins off to focus primarily on him. His environment on the cattle farm, his history, and his involvement with some of the criminals are definitely still key, but the amount of time spent on the police investigation is ultimately extraneous and somewhat unnecessary, and that goes double for the sub-plot involving a stolen car and the death of a famous local police officer and animal hormone investigator. It ultimately takes time away from Jacky, and the climax of the film isn’t as emotionally compelling as it probably could have been. All of the shifting story threads makes Bullhead less personal, and an ending that might draw comparison to the works of Pedro Almodovar lacks the requisite emotional intimacy and flourishes of brilliance that characterize his work. Bullhead would have been better off to either cut back on Jacky’s story and focus on the crime angle, in which case it would have lost most of what makes it unique, or to cut some of the unnecessary genre fat and put Jacky more squarely front and center.
The acting here is also a bit problematic. While Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays Jacky, captures much of the character’s turmoil and frustration, there’s an inaccessibility to his work that keeps the viewer at arm’s length. That’s fine when we’re slowly beginning to explore Jacky’s character and psyche during the first half of the film and there’s an element of mystery to him, and it helps shine some of the light back on the rest of the plot. But by the end of the film, when it’s important that we’re deeply connected to Jackie, the lack of emotional vulnerability and transparency becomes a liability. It’s not helped by the fact that Jeroen Perceval, who plays Jacky’s friend Diederik as an adult and anchors much of the unnecessary investigative side of the narrative, is by far a more accessible, nuanced, and talented actor. Schoenaerts would be better off playing a supporting role where the narrative could help define his character for him; and Perceval is the kind of subtle and compelling actor who keeps drawing interest and empathy and begs to be considered the lead protagonist. Bullhead focusing on him as much as it does for the police-centric sequences only serves to highlight this discrepancy and undermine the film’s intent.
For all that, Bullhead is still compelling, taking place in a world not really portrayed before on film, and featuring some grueling, tragic character work. And if it splits focus by one too many threads and is slightly more ambitious than what it can realize, it’s not something that completely invalidates the entire movie. Bullhead is never an easy film, and its content is often brutal and unsettling, but it’s also a determined workhorse that never stops trudging forward.