“Wounds create monsters and you are wounded.”
The above is one of my favorite lines from Shutter Island and it ran through my mind all throughout Bullhead, a portrait of a man so profoundly hurt by the world that he has transformed himself into a monster so that nothing can ever touch him again.
I’ve heard Bullhead described as a crime film and in the sense that it deals with people outside the law I suppose it is in a very rudimentary sense. But the experience of watching it is so far removed from the standards of the genre that it makes even more abstract fair like say Chopper or Bronsan look like Scarface.
Bullhead follows, Jacky Vanmarsenille a Cattle Farmer/black market hormone trafficker, whose possible alliance with a Flemish Gangster brings scrutiny at the worst possible time. That’s the basis of the plot but it soon fades into a hum of background noise. Jacky injects his own product, the same artificial hormones he uses on his cattle, turning his body into a swollen mass of muscle and tissue that is painful just to look at. This is fitting as a look into his eyes reveals yards of pain. In a way Jacky has transformed his external appearance to become a mirror and expression of his internal one.
As a portrait of alienation and isolation, Matthias Schoenaert’s performance as Jacky deserves comparison with Robert De Niro’s as Travis Bickle as a man so stunted and cut off from the normal world that the simplest day to day interactions are baffling and abrasive to him. Despite the hulking frame and psychotic capacity for violence, Schoenaerts spends most of the film with an expression of complete helplessness on his face. He’s utterly vulnerable and that makes him infinitely more dangerous.
Its a physical performance, not merely in terms of the astonishing physical transformation, but the way he holds himself, the way he moves as if always expecting a blow. His response to the world is fear and violence, he doesn’t have a third option and he’s built himself for the second. The moments when the short chain on his temper do slip and the deep reservoirs of rage he holds for the world are tapped into are just awful.
Director Michael Roskam, creates a feeling of queasy unreality that never manages to slip into simple impressionism, as if the whole of the film is being seen through a red mist. It is an impressive debut to say the least. The film reaches a level of emotional intensity that left me nauseous throughout, not thanks to cheap tricks ala Gaspar Noe, but because Roskam had simply wound me so tight with no hope of release.
There is none of course, Vanmarsenille is denied even Bickle’s final burst of frenzied violence and instead goes out in the same confused impotent rage as the bulls in his pen. If Bullhead is not a crime film then perhaps it is a noir. Though I would be hard pressed even to name a noir that is as hopeless as this one. A despairing portait of a man doomed by ghastly chance and circumstance, it is no slight to say that Bullhead is perhaps the greatest film that I never wish to see again.