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.