The Review Revue: BULLHEAD

In “The Review Review,” we turn dozens of movie reviews from all over the Internet into one handy blog post. It’s like super-concentrated orange juice for film criticism (with less pulp and Vitamin D). This week: we find out whether critics had a cow over BULLHEAD.

Last week in The Review Revue, we covered THE VOW, featuring the “very handsome steak” known as Channing Tatum. This week, it’s BULLHEAD, and now the very handsome steaks are quite literal. This dark crime thriller from Belgium is set largely on a busy cattle farm, where the filets-to-be and T-bone-elects are getting pumped full of illegal hormones in order to goose their size and deliciousness. So two columns in a row, it’s beef on the menu. Sorry, vegetarians. We’ll try to get something in here for you as soon as possible. When’s Pamela Anderson got a movie coming out?

Director: Michael R. Roskam
Writer: Michael R. Roskam
Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts (Jacky), Jeroen Perceval (Diederik), Jeanne Dandoy (Lucia)
Plot Synopsis: A steroid abusing cattle farmer considers a deal with a shady beef trader. The beef trader wants the farmer, Jacky, to pump his livestock full of all kinds of illegal growth hormones. But Jacky’s uncertain, especially after Jacky discovers a forgotten friend from his past works for the beef trader. With his back against the wall, Jacky breaks the single season home run record set by Roger Maris and decides to — sorry, sorry. Confusing my steroid users.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%
Metacritic Score: 72

Most Positive: Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times:

“The stubborn bullhead of the title, Jacky is an angry piece of work. A cattleman in rural Belgium, he’s not only a huge physical specimen, so pumped up on steroids that he practically seems to be bursting out of his clothes, but he’s also a bully and an enforcer for his domineering family. Yet even early on, Schoenaerts’ surpassing performance as a creature of barely contained fury, done with convincing body language and subtle facial expressions much more than words, allows us to see something else beneath the surface, allows us to tentatively connect with Jacky even before the entirety of his story is revealed.”

(In Other Words:) Schoenaerts grabs the bull by the horns with an incredible performance. As Turan’s praise suggests, those who see BULLHEAD aren’t likely to forget it — or Schoenaerts — any time soon. Turan also does a nice job of describing the actor’s physicality, which is so impressively detailed and so crucial to his creation of Jacky and to the success of the film as a whole. True to BULLHEAD’s title, he really does create the image of a man as a snarling beast, right down to the way his heavy, grunting breath is always heard echoing through the soundtrack (a choice, Schoenaerts told me in an interview I conducted for, borne out of the fact that he’d put on so much weight for the part that he was always gasping for air). Schoenaerts’ work is clearly a major reason why BULLHEAD earned a nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards; but it’s too bad he wasn’t nominated for Best Actor as well. Sorry, George Clooney. This guy had you beat.

Most Negative: Chris Barsanti,

“Bringing the bruising physicality of a young Robert De Niro to his many wordless scenes, Schoenaerts practically gives BULLHEAD a reason to exist. Without his dour, amped-up presence, Roskam’s underwritten yet overcomplicated film would hardly register… unfortunately, a glower is not a story.”

(In Other Words:) The rest of the movie around Schoenaerts stinks like a cattle farm. Though Barsanti agrees with the consensus around Schoenaerts’ brooding performance, he found less to admire in the film as a whole. And by less, I mean nothing. He found Roskam’s script “repetitive,” the atmosphere “dreary,” and the film’s metaphors “hardly subtle.” Now if one were so inclined, because one liked BULLHEAD a lot more than Barsanti did, one could argue that all those elements were intentional. The repetitive nature of the plot underscores the theme of destiny; as mightily as Jacky struggles, he seems to find himself drawn back over and over again to the same people and the same problems. The “dreary” atmosphere reflects not only the protagonist’s mood but the natural character of this region of Belgium, which seems perpetually depressed. And the description of the metaphors as “hardly subtle” is something that bothers me in many reviews. When metaphors are too obvious, critics complain. When they’re deeply embedded in the text, they don’t notice them and complain the movie isn’t complex enough. Personally, I found the metaphors effective: Jacky refuses to feel helpess, convinces himself that steroids will make him powerful, and fails to recognize that he has just as little agency in his own life as his cows do in theirs.

Most Typical: Rex Reed, New York Observer:

“The labyrinthine story, with a myriad cast of sinister characters, including two crooked mechanics who switch the tires on the BMW that is involved in the murder of the hormone investigator, is so complicated and overplotted I can’t even describe it with clarity. I can tell you only that this is a film unlike anything I’ve seen before—harrowing, haunting and sordid.”

(In Other Words:) The movie might just make you feel like you were the one who got slaughtered. Though BULLHEAD has some action beats, it is not exactly an action film; many scenes, particularly toward the end of the film, reminded me of the classic Boris Karloff FRANKENSTEIN, where this massive hulking brute with a sweet soul, turned into a monster by forces beyond his control, is confused, hunted, and very much alone. The crime story — which, I agree with Reed, gets fairly complicated at times — is less important than what that crime story does to Jacky. Look, let’s put it another way: how does the story of every cow at a cattle farm end? Not too happily — except for the guy who gets to eat the meat.

The One Review You Have to Read: Joshua Miller, CHUD:

“Schoenaerts will consume all your memories. But the film also marks the emergence of another serious talent to be excited about: Michael R. Roskam. BULLHEAD marks Roskam’s first feature film, but he deploys himself with a vicious expert’s agility. The script is quite good, but it is as a director that Roskam seems to have the most presence. There are hints of Scorsese in how Roskam approaches his characters and scenes, especially in the way that he injects humor into the film without ever compromising the drama or tension.”

(In Other Words:) Roskam explodes onto the indie film scene like a bull in a china shop (in other, other words: there are a lot of bull puns this week). Great actors don’t give great performances for bad directors. Even as Schoenaerts soaked in some well-deserved adulation, his director was often criticized by writers (like Barsanti) when he was mentioned at all. Barsanti compared Schoenaerts to De Niro; if the comparison’s valid (and I think it is), then I think you have to at least consider comparing Roskam to Scorsese. De Niro is a Hall of Fame actor, but I’ve seen almost as many terrible De Niro movies (like this or this or this or this or this) as great ones. The difference? The great De Niro movies have great directors like Scorsese. The terrible ones? Not so much. So Roskam deserves plenty of credit. Do I think he’s the next Scorsese? No, not yet. Could he be the next Scorsese? Possibly. This is his first feature film. For a debut, it is very impressive.

The Critical Consensus In One Sentence From One Review: “BULLHEAD’s bovine milieu makes a familiar tale of posturing tough guys stand out.” — Noel Murray, The A.V. Club

BULLHEAD is now playing in New York, Los Angeles, and Austin, Texas.