Written and Directed by Michael R. Roskam
In French, it translates to, “me parlez-vous?”
In Dutch, it’s “spreekt u aan me?”
Set in Belgium, with dialogue in Dutch and French, Michael R. Roskam’s Bullhead is a taut, uncompromising character study and organized crime thriller that masterfully translates Scorsese’s magnum opus quote, ‘are you talking to me?’
The film stars Mattias Schoenaerts as Jacky Vanmarsenille, a steroid addicted cattle rancher working on his family farm. One day, an unscrupulous veterinarian approaches Jacky to do business with a notorious beef trader, but following the assassination of a federal policeman, a Pandora’s box of suppressed memories is released within him, causing Jacky to kick off a series of unavailing exploits that suffer unto him untold consequences.
Like an archetypal Martin Scorsese film, Bullhead is a study of unlikeable and fatally flawed characters. But with ample amount of grace and dexterity, Roskam turns our disgust into intrigue, making us understand, if not care for, the film’s schismatic protagonist.
In the beginning, Jacky is nothing more than a bully. A towering hulk of a man, Jacky uses his synthetic strength and brutishness to intimidate others into compromising.
However, the film, and Jacky himself, is much more multifaceted. As we delve into his back-story, we come across Jacky’s childhood, and when we see the deeply disturbing and traumatic event that led to his abusive steroid use, we are unquestionably sympathetic.
Without spoiling too much, Jacky’s use of steroids is a metaphor for what it means to be man and how masculinity is defined. The tragedy left him unable to develop in the same way as others, so he must use drugs to artificially compensate. This causes us to consider.
By using steroids, Jacky has, indeed, developed into what we would consider masculine. Authoritative, controlling, and with a body like Bronson, Jacky fits into the Hercules mold, but underneath all the superficial affectations, he lacks the one (or two) aspect that truly make him a man.
This makes us rethink the definition of masculinity from something that is socially contrived and outwardly projected, to something that is naturally inherent and self-understood.
From there, we are pulled back into Jacky’s criminal underworld. Although this section of the film is not as equally strong as the previous, the character study seamlessly carries over, allowing us to understand Jacky’s actions by cultivating our knowledge of his history.
Like the cattle, Jacky is injected with growth hormones in order to be useful. For the cows, its to be sold for meat, and for him, its very much the same. His only usefulness is to be savage and burly, and as such, he’s appropriately treated like a commodity. He’s seen by his physique, not his psyche, which reinforces the film original notion of identity and masculinity being an introverted quality, not extroverted.
Deeply fascinating and endlessly engaging, Jacky’s character analysis is almost as gripping as Robert De Niro’s in Taxi Driver. In fact, the scenes where Jacky is shadowboxing closely mirrors the infamous scene of Travis Bickle pontificating with a gun in front of a mirror, and Jacky’s obsession with a woman is reminiscent to Bickle’s infatuation with Cybill Shepherd’s character.
However, the crime thriller is often subservient to the one-man show, and at times, it almost becomes unnecessary. Despite this, the film still succeeds in large part to Schoenaerts’ brilliantly tortured performance, making Bullhead a picture worth talking about. Just don’t ask Schoenaerts about it.
– Justin Li
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