It’s all about meat.
Then again, why wouldn’t it be?
Michael R. Roskam’s unique and harrowing crime melodrama Bullhead is a dark, classic tale of friendship and betrayal against one of the most original backdrops ever utilized in a gangster picture. Hallmarks of the genre – double crosses, filthy brute force, intimidation of the worst kind – are transplanted to Belgium, with Goodfellas-styled hoods in the roles of two-fisted laconic farmers, veterinarians and feed suppliers.
It’s film noir crossed with a sprawling, operatic, Visconti-like virtuosity, yet tinged with the earthy stench of cow shit mixed with the sour metallic odour of blood.
A super-buff stud works out maniacally in the dark after plunging steroids into his firm, sleek buttocks.
A cow’s belly is sliced open without painkiller. A calf is ripped from the gaping cavity of viscous fluids. The dazed newborn, covered with glistening viscera, is tossed violently into a filthy metal tub.
An ecstasy-and-booze-filled ladies’ man is dragged out of the glare of a lone street lamp and hauled into the shadows of night, so viciously beaten he’ll live the rest of his life as a vegetable.
Covert dinner meetings between thugs – fuelled by booze and sumptuously prepared steaks – occur surreptitiously on farms, in barns and within feed warehouses. Deals, deliveries and alliances are discussed as forks and knives dig savagely into slabs of meat on platters garnished with little more than boiled potatoes – soaking up pools of blood and fat that ooze from the steroid-enhanced comestibles.
Bucolic Belgian farmlands at dusk and twilight mask an evil criminal world of organized steroid users and purveyors – peddling livestock pumped to the max with growth-and-fat-enhancing drugs.
A brick lifted high in the air, touching the heavens before slamming down repeatedly, smashing a pair of testicles to a pulp – forcing the owner of the mashed potato nuts to begin a life that’s an uphill Sisyphean climb.
Bullhead is one great and original gangster picture.
From the innocence of childhood to the corruption-tarnished cusp between youth and middle age, writer-director Michael R. Roskam charts the friendship between Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Diederik (Jeroen Perceval). As kids they are groomed for a life in illicit meat manufacturing and their lives are as inextricably linked as they are estranged after an early tragedy results in a dizzying criminal ascension and a downward-spiralling fate.
Roskam’s screenplay brilliantly lays out a myriad of crooked relationships, complex and virtually impenetrable ‘business deals’ and friendships that are as intense as they are fraught with guilt mixed with immoral layers. The ins and outs of the ‘mysteries’ become as obtuse as those in The Big Sleep. At times, we think we have a grasp on what’s happening, but the layers of plot are ultimately too thick to follow. It almost doesn’t matter. What we know for certain is that bad shit is coming down. That’s all we really need to know.
Through it all is the staggering performance of Matthias Schoenaerts – brooding, physical and steeped in humanity. His eyes are extraordinary – shifting in one moment from soulful to dead like a shark.
Roskam’s mise en scène is first rate. His compositions are painterly and the cinematography manages to capture a sense of dreariness so that it’s positively exciting – etching night exteriors like masterly impressionist paintings and dramatic picture compositions that are as thrilling as they’re simplistically evocative in terms of both spatial geography and the ever-shifting dynamics of the characters. The pace weirdly evokes country life – it’s slow, but never lugubrious. Roskam hooks us like a master and leads us where he needs to and wants to – on HIS terms and those that the story demands.
Early in the film, we hear a life manifesto that boils down to one thing:
‘Everything is fucked!’
And so it is in Bullhead. It’s gloriously, deliriously and viciously fucked – an amoral, cynical, nihilistic and narcissistic 70s style of nastiness brought miraculously to life in a contemporary world of cow shit and gangsters.
We even get some redemption, but a steep price is paid for it.
As it should be.