“Sometimes in a man’s life, stuff happens that makes everyone go quiet,” so says the opening narration of this Oscar-nominated film, “so quiet that no one even dares to talk about it… Not in their head and not out loud.”
When that stuff does happen, it can change a man, alter him as a human. It can either make him a better person or not. If not, then what that man becomes is most likely kin to animal rather than person. Writer-director Michael R. Roskam gives a sense of that after his two-minute narration fades and his first sequence begins.
In the breadth of thirty seconds, he takes us from a third-person, point-of-view shot into a first-person, point-of-view shot, all without a single edit. He moves us from a beautiful, non-imposing landscape into a menacing, almost horror-like angle with the introduction of his main character feeling as a predator approaching his prey, a tiger about to pounce a turkey.
Yet, he’s not a tiger. Going off the title of this film, dedicated actor Matthias Schoenaerts is emulating the animal we won’t even see until about a half-hour into this story. The inference is made with Schoenaerts’ behavior and seeing his naked body, a body that is massive, a hulk of pure muscle, but the connection is cemented 100 minutes later when Roskam shows the animals in question and their naked bodies, how massive and muscular they are, as well as how they breathe in the cold, Belgian, night air. It delivers us back to 100 minutes prior when Schoenaerts’ character is approaching his prey. The most pronounced thing that you hear in that moment, besides the moo sound in the background, is Schoenaerts’ breathing, so towards the end, even though the bit of dialogue is only underscoring what we’ve already seen, when Schoenaerts says, “I’ve always felt just like these bulls here,” we understand completely.
Schoenaerts plays Jacky Vanmarsenille, a farmhand at a cattle ranch owned by Jacky’s father. Jacky’s father is infirmed, so Jacky and his brother Stieve, along with their uncle Eddy are the ones who do the day-to-day activities to keep the farm going. Included are deals that all three make with underground drug traffickers for growth hormones or steroids. The steroids allow them to earn more money because it increases the meat on their animals and does so faster. Even if the scenes of Jacky’s addiction or obsessed regimen weren’t themselves injected into this movie, it wouldn’t take a laboratory test to tell that Jacky injects his own body with those same steroids.
Roskam flashes us back to Jacky’s youth before the steroids. Jacky was a skinny, little kid, a curious and open spirit, a loving friend. Now, as a man, he’s basically a thug, a large, sinewy beefcake who like an ox is stubborn and a closed spirit with no friends and no love. This transformation doesn’t happen overnight, as if Jacky were bitten by a radioactive spider. Yet, like Stan Lee, the melding of man with this specific creature is what Roskam and Schoenaerts accomplish. Though Jacky isn’t Spider-Man, he’s Bull-Man.
Since Roskam’s cinematography takes its inspiration from Flemish painters, painters who impacted the Renaissance, the 14th and 15th century revival of Greek and Roman culture, it might be appropriate to call Jacky a Minotaur, a classic character from Greek and Roman mythology, who was literally a Bull-Man. The Minotaur had the head of a bull and the body of a man. Despite seeming mostly human, the animal part is what ruled the Minotaur’s actions. The same is what’s ruling Jacky’s actions, as evidenced in the opening scene when we see this Bull-Man behaving like a bull-y, although to be technical a bull is an un-castrated male.
There are several more specific and overt examples that Jacky is bull-like in his way of being. When he’s warding someone away or aggressively attacking people, Jacky’s favorite move is the head-butt. Several four-legged animals will use their limbs to fight, but most bulls have horns growing out their skulls. Defensively or offensively, the bulls will lower their heads and ram forward. Even farm cattle that have had their horns removed will still instinctively head-butt.
In his private moments, Roskam frames Jacky from behind. His torso is centered in front of a window, almost casting him in silhouette, as he practices his right and left hooks, literally shadowboxing. When Jacky isn’t swinging purely at air but at people, he’s using these instinctive and possibly inherent head-butt moves just as a bull. Roskam, however, really shows his hand in a scene that brings Jacky into a nightclub and alludes to a Spanish bullfight. At first, Jacky is bathed in dark blue, but Roskam then washes Jacky’s head in the color red just as a matador would his cape, provoking the beast with or into violence. Jacky is then so provoked. It’s a scene that’s just as thrilling as an actual bullfight but also quite haunting.
It’s heartbreaking as well because it’s in this scene that we feel Jacky’s humanity perhaps is permanently lost. He is perhaps closer to being the Minotaur, the creature with whom you cannot reason, than any and all would fear. Unlike the Minotaur though, Jacky was not born this way and Roskam provides enough to know how this man ceases to be a man.
It starts with the most basic and fundamental thing that identifies a man as a man and Jacky has that taken away from him. He’s emasculated. In a manner that isn’t over-the-top or graphic, Roskam through his actor depicts that pain and the devastation that Jacky feels with such resonance that it’s difficult to watch even on the second, third, or fourth time. But, then a question is asked, which should not be the most basic and fundamental thing that identifies a man as a man but for many cultures, especially this mafia-tinged, farming culture that Roskam paints here, it is, and that question was, “Is he going to be gay?”
Roskam’s film raises the point that sexuality, specifically heterosexuality is what defines a man. This creates a problem for Jacky because as far as Roskam shows Jacky doesn’t have or isn’t interested in sex. Jacky leaves when some men start talking about sex and when an acquaintance takes him to essentially a prostitute, Jacky revolts.
Admittedly, there is a lot to infer about Jacky. One of which is that for a man in his late twenties or early thirties, he is probably a virgin. One thing that needn’t be inferred is that, if not totally sex-deprived, Jacky is certainly love-deprived. Schoenaerts is brilliant in his conveyance of so much about this character with so little dialogue. His body language is what speaks the volumes and what he utters non-verbally is frustration and quiet desperation for love.
Jacky carries that pain he suffered around. He never dealt with it. He merely built muscle on top of it to cover it up. He never formed any serious relationships. It’s doubtful that he even learned how to form serious relationships. It’s doubtful that Jacky learned how to love. In the end, this is what devolves a man into a monster. This is what morphs the mortal into the Minotaur. Jacky can’t love. He becomes stuck, isolated to his farm, cut off, more socially castrated than anything else. He tries but he can’t connect with other people. When he fails, his figurative descent, Roskam charts with a geographical descent, and accentuates it with a violin-heavy musical theme by Raf Keunen that builds until Jacky spirals out of control.
Marlon Wallace is an independent scholar.
Director Michael R. Roskam
Screenplay Michael R. Roskam
Producer Bart Van Langendonck
Director of Photography Nicolas Karakatsanis
Art Director Walter Brugmans
With Matthias Schoenaerts (Jacky), Jeroen Perceval (Diederik), Jeanne Dandoy (Lucia), Barbara Sarafian (Eva), Tibo Vandenborre (Antony), Frank Lammers (Sam), Robin Valvekens (Young Jacky), Baudoin Wolwertz (Young Diederik), and David Murgia (Bruno)
Runtime 128 minutes
Produced and Distributed by Drafthouse Films (region 1)
Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
Sound Mix 5.1 Surround
Extras Audio Commentary, Interview with Michael R. Roskam, Interview with Matthias Schoenaerts, Making of Bullhead, The One Thing to Do – Roskam’s 2005 Short Film starring Matthias Schoenaerts, and Theatrical Trailer