Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review: "Bullhead"

Director: Michael Roskam
Runtime: 123 minutes

Questions of masculinity run throughout Michael Roskam's agricultural thriller (stay with me) Bullhead. Whether it's an undercover gay cop or a man coping with a horrific injury from his past, the heart of the film, aside from its twisty plot involving a battle between cops and smugglers, comes down to what it means to be a man, and the lengths people go to in order to feel content with their masculinity, whether to themselves, or to others. It's territory rife with potential for cliches, yet Roskam, in an impressive debut, pulls it all together beautifully. With the help of a stunning turn from leading man Matthias Schoenaerts (also seen this year in Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone), Bullhead cements itself as one of the year's most gripping films, foreign language or not. 

However, let's first clear up a bit of date confusion. Bullhead was nominated for Foreign Language Film at the most recent Academy Awards. However, unlike winner A Separation, the film received no theatrical (festivals don't count) US release in the 2011 calendar year. So, for all intents and purposes, for the US (and for all other Oscar categories), Bullhead is a 2012 film with an unfortunate early release date that has killed any chance it might have had of earning some other awards love from the Academy. A shame, because Schoenaerts' performance alone is worthy of some attention come year's end (but more on that later).

In short, the plot involves cattle farmer Jacky (Schoenaerts) being approached to make a deal with some nefarious beef traders, who specialize in using illegal steroids to help the bulls mature faster. Elsewhere, a police officer's murder, and the subsequent investigation, set in motion a related chain of events involving an undercover policeman with connections to Jacky's past. Predictably (one of the few instances where the word applies), the investigation and Jacky's involvement with the beef traders are set on a inevitable collision course. Thankfully, Roskam's storytelling more than compensates for the one seemingly obvious aspect of the story, and keeps one off edge as to exactly how or when the forces on opposite sides of the law will meet. 

Jumping between Jacky and gay cop Diederick (Jeroen Perceval), Roskam manages to impressively weave the story together, little details, side characters, and all, for most of the film's 2 hour duration. As writer and director, Roskam has a mostly successful concept of gradually developing the film, while offsetting said development with lots of fluid camera work. The character of Jacky, in particular, is almost always in movement, his bulky, steroid-enhanced frame often trudging across the screen in some direction. And when Jacky is in stasis, the emotions start to bubble forth, and Schoenaerts handles the releases of deeply felt rage, emasculation, and vulnerability with a beautiful and understated intensity. As important as Dierderick is to the plot, the film's heart ultimately lies with Jacky, his layers peeled back with careful measure. 

Outside of the main duo, the cast is uniformly capable, though they're all ultimately side characters who do more to influence the plot than develop the film's themes. At times, this can lead Bullhead into iffy territory. Towards the middle of the film, the narrative threads surrounding the investigation and Jacky's life start to feel too separate for their own good, despite the efficient cutting. There is also the risk that, with so many supporting characters who strictly serve the plot, the film might alienate some viewers in this midsection. Some films have their weakest moments at the beginning or end, but Roskam's troubles (though never major problems) pop up in the middle, which slightly throws off the narrative progression between its ample set up and its move towards the finish line. 

This small quirk aside (it barely qualifies as an error in my eyes), however, does little to diminish the film's power once it ramps up for the home stretch. As the main threads of the story begin to re-intertwine, Roskam and his co-workers on both sides of the camera are able to make the film really connect. And if the film's quality dips in the middle,the quality of Schoenaerts' work only goes up and up the whole way through. Rich, moody cinematography and effective musical contributions only enhance the experience, and the big emotional (and physical) climax is a rousing success, despite the dour tone. Jacky may spend the majority of the film feeling incomplete as a man, but his journey as handled by Roskam, is wholly satisfying and moving.

Grade: A-

No comments: