Archive for February, 2012

Review: Bullhead (2011)

The best thing about Bullhead (Rundskop), Michael R. Roskam’s feature-length debut, is by far its lead actor, Matthias Schoenaerts. Schoenaerts, playing cattle farmer and small-time crook Jacky Vanmarsenille, is huge, a mountain of a man with hypertrophied shoulders and bulging neck muscles, with a broad, broken nose and a perpetually half-closed right eye that make him look even more imposing. But Jacky’s not a gentle giant. There’s an intensity to him, an anger that he constantly struggles to repress and that comes out in explosive bouts of violence. Yet he is also a profoundly sad being , a man always looking at the world as if he didn’t, couldn’t ever belong to it. A perpetual outcast whose condition tears at his very soul. All that Schoenaerts conveys not through dialogue, but through sheer physicality. He is not a handsome man by any means, but he has presence, charisma, even a sort of uncalculated and dangerous charm. Whenever he is onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off of him—and not only because he occupies so much of it. And when he’s offscreen, you find yourself waiting for the next scene in which he’ll be.

There are actually a number of plotlines that run concurrently through Bullhead, although all end up revolving, in one way or another, around Jacky and his Limburgian cattle farm (“It’s in Belgium,” as Colin Farrell would say). There’s the West Flemish gangster and beef trader Marc Decuyper (Sam Louwyck), with whom Jacky might be about to make a deal, encouraged by the crooked veterinarian who sells him the growth hormones he uses on his cows. There’s the murder of a federal police officer who was investigating Decuyper and its fallout, with which Decuyper’s henchman Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) has to deal. And then there’s the thing that haunts Jacky, that drives him to inject himself with steroids and human growth hormones every day, to stalk a young woman who sells perfume for a living. “There are things,” he says in a voice-over at the very beginning of the film, “that you can’t ever talk about. Not ever.” But you can’t forget them, either, as much as you might want to.

The film’s narrative structure is sometimes problematic, especially when it comes to the way Roskam (who wrote the screenplay) uses flashbacks. While Jacky’s back story is obviously central to the film, Roskam goes into a little too much detail, bringing the story to a complete stop when it’s just getting started so he can recount what happened to Jacky twenty years earlier. (I have been thinking a lot about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy lately (I think the word I’m looking for is “obsessed”), and that’s a movie that uses flashbacks (and there are a great deal more of them than here) in truly remarkable, never disruptive ways. Not that the comparison is necessarily fair or even all that relevant. Moving on.) The back and forth between the different plotlines isn’t always seamless, either, partly because the scenes that don’t feature Jacky are inherently much weaker than the ones that do, partly because the connection between the different plotlines seems a bit contrived at times.

But that is also what the film is about. Bullhead is built like a tragedy, like a death trap that’s closing in on Jacky without his even being aware of it, and all the contrivances and coincidences are just cogs in the machine that’s slowly crushing him. “I don’t believe in coincidences,” a character says on two different occasions, and she’s at once extremely wrong and extremely right. Call it fate, if you will. Or just plain old bad luck, and worse decisions. Bullhead often feels like it could have been written by the Coen Brothers; it’s sort of a grimmer Fargo. Instead of a Marge Grundersson, you get a tortured giant, a man of terrifying, barely-restrained violence and self-destructive impulses, a pathetic freak you can’t help but feel sorry for.

The film also contains a few almost absurd elements that wouldn’t feel too out of place in a Coen movie. Take Christian (Erico Salamone) and David Filippini (Philippe Grand’Henry), for instance, two bumbling Walloon mechanics who unwittingly find themselves linked to both Jacky and Decuyper. They provide broad comic relief, and although they are often indeed funny (there’s a hilarious exchange regarding a bullet hole which, I’m afraid, loses much of its comic impact when translated from French into English), they’re also an endless source of whiplash. The rest of the movie’s humor, what little of it there is, is more subdued, but also more effective, and much less distracting than the Guy Ritchie-esque montage of the two mechanics being interrogated by the police.

Much of Bullhead, like its use of flashbacks, or its comic relief, is clumsy. But even more of it is arresting, even beautiful. There’s Schoenaerts’s performance, of course, but there’s also Roskam’s undeniable technical skills, and the sense of implacability that permeates the whole film and drives it towards its inevitable (and, yes, a little awkward, with its final flashback) conclusion. Fate. Or, as Jacky puts it, those things “you can’t ever talk about.” He does try, because he has to, but by then it is too late, and what should be the film’s most important conversation turns into two people talking past each other about two entirely different things. Or perhaps that’s just fate again.


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Review: Rage (2010)

Rage, the title card that opens Christopher R. Witherspoon’s thriller informs us, is a “violent, uncontrollable anger.” The bright red title card, though, gives way to a series of an apparently calm Portland suburb. A little too calm, perhaps. Witherspoon knows his horror movies (and, I imagine, his David Lynch), and the deserted streets are filmed as if from the point of view of a lurking serial killer in a slasher movie. The impression that something isn’t quite right, reinforced by the eerie music, is hard to shake off. Rage, though, is anything but yet another commentary on life in the paradisiac hell that is American suburbia, and if danger looms somewhere, it’s in the big city next door. Portland, Oregon, that den of iniquity and violence. (I kid, I kid.)

That’s where protagonist Dennis Twist (Rick Crawford), a thirty-something writer and teacher, is headed, to spend his day off and get his wife Crystal (Audrey Walker) a present. Or at least that’s what he tells her. What he doesn’t mention is that he’s first meeting with his mistress, the very eastern European Dana (Anna Lodej), to break up with her. Which, admittedly, goes relatively well. But somewhere along the way, Dennis somehow attracts the attention of a mysterious biker (played by Witherspoon himself), who proceeds to follow him around and play what are at first harmless pranks on him. As the biker becomes more and more threatening, though, Dennis starts wondering about the man’s identity and his motivation. Perhaps the guy is Dana’s former convict of an ex-boyfriend, out to hurt his rival. Or perhaps, Dennis muses, it’s just karma, the universe’s way of getting back at him for cheating on his wife.

Rage is, of course, reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Duel, in which a man driving a Plymouth Valiant in the California desert is relentlessly hounded by a truck and its unseen driver (Dennis’s car, like Dennis Weaver’s Plymouth, is bright red). The connection is made explicit when Dennis overhears two people discussing Duel and its symbolic meaning in a somewhat clumsy scene that’s all the more redundant because it echoes an earlier, much more interesting (and funnier) discussion between Dennis and his best friend/shrink Stan (Richard Topping). While Dennis is busy wallowing in self-pity, Stan assures him that all the bad stuff that’s been happening to him isn’t karma, “it’s bloody life.” A little forward, perhaps, but I guess that’s what you get when you routinely get plastered with your shrink.

Witherspoon’s film is a solid thriller and, as a sort of revisiting of Duel for the 21st century, nicely effective, with a few good scares (and a handful of laughs). The biker, who never takes his helmet off and remains silent throughout, exudes an aura of menace that makes Dennis’s predicament convincing when it could easily have been laughable. At the same time, there’s a sort of playful mischievousness to his early pranks that makes his crossing the line into violence, which he does suddenly and without warning, all the more horrific. There’s a very nice scene in which a terrified Dennis, having managed to escape his pursuer, finds refuge in a subterranean parking lot. There’s a long close-up of Dennis, hunched up behind the wheel of his car, illuminated by the unnatural blue light of the neon, listening intently for any sign of the biker. It goes on for the longest time, and just when you see Dennis’s face begin to relax, you hear the bike’s motor revving, a second before the bike itself appears, going down the ramp into the parking lot.

In its last third, Rage cranks up both the tension and violence, as the biker follows Dennis home and invades his private life. Witherspoon seems aware of just how over the top his story is, and revels in it. There is for instance a surprisingly bloody (and hilarious) scene involving a chainsaw and Dennis’s clueless neighbor Clancy, who was introduced at the beginning of the movie contentedly patting his potbelly on his front lawn. Not that Witherspoon can’t do serious horror: the chainsaw incident directly follows the film’s most chilling scenes, and the laughs are more than welcome.

Duel, one of the Spielberg aficionados mentions, was about an everyman facing a seemingly unstoppable force of nature. Rage is more about the stress inherent to life in the big city, in more ways than one. (The biker is basically a more focused version of the muckers of John Brunner’s science fiction classic Stand on Zanzibar.) In the end, Dennis can’t escape the biker, who pursues him even into his dreams. One may wonder whether that faceless, voiceless man isn’t simply a projection of Dennis’s pent-up frustration and anger, a doppelganger born of stress and self-pity. Witherspoon keeps you guessing until the end, and the eventual revelation of the biker’s motivation, in the film’s final minutes, thankfully doesn’t resolve everything neatly.