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Feature


Domineering cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), constantly pumped on steroids and hormones, initiates a shady deal with a notorious Mafioso meat trader. When an investigating federal agent is assassinated and a woman from his traumatic past resurfaces, Jacky must confront his demons and face the far-reaching consequences of his decisions. (From the original Drafthouse Films synopsis)

Bullhead
I usually try to preface a review with some kind of historical perspective and personal context, but Bullhead (original title Rundskop) defies both. This Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award nominee (it lost to Iranian divorce melodrama, A Separation) comes from first-time feature film writer/director Michaël R. Roskam, who, outside the Belgian arthouse, had very little in the way of ‘buzz’ before the film was released. There’s also the whole matter of Bullhead being a Belgium film and my knowledge of modern Belgium cinema is reduced to Fabrice Du Welz survival horror Calvaire, Mabrouk El Mechri’s subversive crime thriller JCVD, Rémy Belvaux’s brilliant serial killer mockumentary Man Bites Dog, Lee Tamahori’s The Devil’s Double (which, for most intents and purposes, is an American/UK production in disguise), and a handful of animated features.

It seems that modern Belgian films tend to share a hyper-cinéma vérité style and Bullhead doesn’t do a whole lot to differentiate itself on these terms. Roskam’s camera direction and blocking aim to capture natural beauty without ever taking a particularly 'stagey' route. There are stylistic hints that clue the audience in to inspiration taken from Coppola’s Godfather films, but, by and large, Bullhead is a halcyonic motion picture experience that would rather avoid any detection of style. Only a handful of subjective images and visually poetic shots of the stoic nature and architecture of the area remind the audience of the director’s hand at work. I’ve read reviews that compare Bullhead to a handful of post-modern Euro-crime films I still haven’t seen, like Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine and Matteo Garrone’s Gamorrah. I find that in my ignorance it’s much easier to compare Bullhead to other films that revolve around self-destructive antiheroes, like Scorsese’s more opulent Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Abel Ferrara’s more nihilistic Bad Lieutenant, Darren Aronofsky’s more hopeful The Wrestler and Andrew Dominik’s more amusing Chopper. But, probably because I saw it most recently, and because it had such a dramatic effect on me, I kept coming back to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, which is kind of unfair of me since, outside of the lone wolf qualities of the main characters and some basic crime story narrative elements, the two films have very little in common and much different stylistic goals. Not to say Bullhead isn’t beautifully shot, it’s just shot with an entirely different eye than Drive.

Bullhead
Bullhead’s biggest and most persistent problem is its plot’s listless, familiar nature. It can also be difficult to follow, thanks in no small part to a flashback story structure that makes it a bit difficult to recall first-act plot points. The necessity of the flashbacks is negligible and the amount of time they take from the present day storyline is rhythmically stunting, but I suppose the back and forth recital does give the film a certain flavour, so the lack of a tighter and more eventful narrative becomes the larger issue. The screenplay has more than its share of unique elements (the cattle farming and steroid angles alone mark it as original), but it rarely feels particularly special due to Roskam’s conventional approach. Either he needed to rein his plot threads in a bit more densely, or he needed to delve a bit further in their grotesque qualities. It seems like subtly was not the best approach in this particular case, especially since the overall image design of the film is so pointedly efficient. That said, the final 30 or so minutes are positively riveting without changing things up too drastically, so the pay-off is generally worth the journey. It’s difficult at times to keep track of events, but characters are pretty easy to track thanks to Roskam’s strong, often amusing dialogue and solid casting, casting that ensures that everyone is easy to tell apart even when they aren’t speaking due to interesting and diverse faces. It’s a testament to Roskam’s haunting stylistic choices and lead actor Matthias Schoenaerts’ performance that Bullhead maintains its haunting and even mesmerizing momentum. Schoenaerts is the perfect blend of likable, pitiable and terrifying required for the role and deserves the praised heaped upon him since the film was released.

Bullhead

Video


Bullhead hits Blu-ray with a solid 2.35:1, 1080p transfer that appropriately reproduces the grit of its 35mm source format. Actually, that’s not entirely true, on the whole, this transfer is so crisp and life-like it often looks more like it was shot digital in HD, but there are clues as to the 35mm source throughout. These ‘shortcomings’ appear as fine, consistently dancing grain, softer background detail, lightened frame edges and minor haloes. The film is shot utilizing a lot of natural lighting and the over-running colour scheme is dulled, leading to a rather modest image, but alternating deep-focus wide shots and shallow-focus facial close-ups help keep detail levels dynamic. The sharpness of the details isn’t exactly mind-blowing, but there are enough fine textures and complex patterns to make a clear distinction between this and a standard-definition release. The colours are rarely vibrant, but there is a prevailing theme to the hues. These are made up largely of earthy undertones with sickly green lighting schemes and warm, usually reddish highlights. One consistent but minor issue that likely could’ve been avoided is the slight banding effects during fade-ins/fade-outs and between intersecting warm and cool hues. When the greenish base colours are sharply contrasted with bright, poppy reds, there’s no bleeding issues, but subtler blends are a bit off. Black levels are rarely particularly impressive, but even at their greyest, they rarely take on a lot of the surround hues outside of the darkest sequences, where they can appear a bit green.

Audio


Bullhead is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound, in a mix of French, Dutch/Flemish (dueling specs?) and Limburgish. There’s very little here to exercise the stereo and surround channels – dialogue takes center stage, sound effects are usually presented in the center channel and aren’t particularly noisy; there’s not a lot of music, and what music we hear is more ambient than progressive, rhythmic or even melodic. Composer Raf Keunen is going for something haunting here that undercuts the story’s tone, not a bombastic, standout score. Total silence plays a pointed role throughout the film as well and musically heavy sequences are bereft of additional sound to maintain a certain purity of sound. There are occasional directional effects, such as vehicles moving from front to back, chirping, ambient birds, and a big, bouncy dance club sequence. The LFE channel is also largely underutilized, coming to life on some of the louder musical cues (that big, bouncy club centerpiece) and as support of the richer sound effects. What’s important is that the dialogue is consistent and clear, even when characters are whispering. Not that I could discern the words without the subtitles, of course.

Bullhead

Extras


Alamo Drafthouse is still new at this whole Blu-ray thing, but these early releases seem to prove they have every intension of treating their audience to experience-widening supplementary features. This disc begins with a commentary track from writer/director Michaël R. Roskam and an unnamed moderator. Roskam, who speaks in plenty discernable English, can be nearly impossible to understand, thanks to his genial tone and soft volume levels. When it is possible to understand his words, he covers all the basics, from his cast and script, to all the technical activities that go into making a feature film. There’s a slight problem with simply naming and praising the people involved (it’s always good to know the names, but thanking your friends in a public forum is almost always boring for everyone but your friends), but Roskam’s discussion is particularly valuable when he’s contextualizing the very Belgian cultural elements of the film, specifically dialect, which many of the actors had to learn for their roles. There’s also interesting discussion concerning the Flemish paintings that inspired the cinematography.

Next up is The Making Of Bullhead (22:00, HD). This behind-the-scenes featurette covers the production process with an artistic eye, including physically transforming Matthias Schoenaerts via diet, training and make-up, Roskam’s process with actors, location shooting, props, stunt prep, music and deleting a big shoot-out sequence. Everything is told via rough, charming, behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with actors Schoenaerts (the most in-depth of the interview clips), Robin Valvekens and the other child members of the cast, Jeroen Perceval, Sam Louwyck, Philippe Grand’Henri, Erico Salamone and Jeanne Dandoy. This is followed by two interviews. The first features Roskam (11:50, HD) basically taking his commentary track and distilling it down to its most basic elements (kind of like his Jacky-to-Batman comparison) and the second features Schoenaerts (and his impeccable, accentless English, 6:30, HD) talking about his long, long time on the project.

The extras also feature Roskam’s 2005 short film The One Thing to Do (25:10, HD) which stars a much thinner Schoenaerts, and works as a sort of dry-run for Bullhead. It’s actually a more ambitious and even epic film than Bullhead and sees Roskam already experimenting with excessive flashbacks. Things end with a trailer.

Bullhead

Overall


Bullhead wasn’t quite the masterpiece I was hoping for based on its critical acclaim and Oscar nomination. Despite an amazing central performance and some unique story elements, the final project ends up a bit too conventional. It’s certainly a very good movie, it just isn’t transcendent or particularly brilliant. Drafthouse Films’ Blu-ray looks and sounds very good, but is somewhat limited by the source material. The extras are entertaining and informatively inclusive and should please the film’s fans quite a bit.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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