[EDITOR'S NOTE: Fearless Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is making it her mission to watch every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]
Bullhead isn't about what you think it's about at first. You start out with a voice-over about things from the past coming back; then you move into a plot about the Flemish "hormone mafia," and whether cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts) is going to involve himself in a deal to improve the weight of his cows. Or so you think. You also see a series of moody shots of Jacky in his bathroom, staring, sitting immobile in the shower, then injecting himself with testosterone, so then you think the movie is about that — that perhaps he's preparing for a fight of some kind? Then Jacky attends a meeting set up by a smarmy vet (Frank Lamers), and recognizes the boss's flunky Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), although both men play it like they've never met. There is A Vibe between them, and you think, "Ohhh, okay. It's about that." And it is. And…it isn't.
It's about all these things (the "preparing for a fight" part, too, although not in a Rocky sense). Jacky and Diederik were besties as kids; their fathers worked together, tied up with the same sketchy cattle characters Jacky is now dealing with. Then they crossed paths with a disturbed boy, and that long-ago horror is now leading inexorably to ruin.
The film is shot effectively, which is to say unpleasantly. I felt stifled by the greyness and the tight close-ups, but it worked to create tension. Good acting throughout as well. Perceval's jumpy jackass is convincing but not unsympathetic, and Schoenaerts has one of those beautifully busted European-actor faces that American film doesn't really allow for; it looks carved, not born, but it's expressive in spite of that, and he does fine work with an Ennis Del Mar-type character who isn't very articulate. And there isn't much even an articulate character can say to Jacky's situation. The film is about a man who couldn't quite become a man, who lived without living, and it's beyond discussing.
It puts a foot wrong now and then — I didn't love the last shot, and the crucifix hallucination is sophomoric — and it's hard to take in some ways, but it's a strong movie, in the way a drink is strong.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.