Review: Bullhead, a delightfully eccentric tale of European beef crimes

When you sin against beef, you sin against yourself

This could be the most convoluted, least-illuminating movie description I’ve ever written, but the best way I can describe Bullhead is that it’s a movie that a more understated, less style-preoccupied Guy Ritchie would’ve made, if he was trying to rip off Scorsese instead of Tarantino. Also, it’s sort of like Black Swan, if the Black Swan had been a Belgian gangster. Totally makes sense, right? Now you understand completely, I should probably just stop right here.

It’s okay. That it’s so hard to classify is a big part of the charm.

There’s nothing like an eccentric film that carries on without any apology for its eccentricity. Hollywood’s mainstream studio pictures are so obsessed with starting from a place of familiarity that you get to see the same bullshit a thousand times over, solely out of the fear that someone in the audience might be confused (the horror!). They forget that strangeness itself is compelling, and that you’ll usually find familiarity in a story so long as it compels you to look for it (a point Drew Magary makes beautifully

Rightly-acclaimed actor Matthias Schoenaerts plays the lead, Jacky Vanmarsenille, a puffed-up Flemish beef gangster, as ‘roided up as the cattle he trades and whose past has left him a bit, shall we say, stunted. (I hate it when asshole writers play coy like this, but I don’t want to spoil the most memorable scene, which is unforgettable). Jacky is violent and prone to racial and homophobic slurs, but even through Schoenaerts’ crooked prosthetic nose, lazy eye, and the 66 pounds of muscle he put on for the role (which is not only impressive but makes you wonder if he was a mime before this – that dude on your right is him before he became the guy in the banner image), he practically sweats insecurity and childhood slights. Jacky’s caught up in a deal to supply beef hormones (also the name of my indie band, etc.) to some West Flanders weirdos, who may have just made his life a whole lot more complicated by killing a beef investigator (also your mom’s nickname in high school, etc.). With the head now on from the police, also involved are some shady Walloon car thieves, a gay informant, a deranged, wanking-obsessed simpleton, and the big-breasted perfume-store clerk whom Jacky’s been pining after since childhood. If it sounds like Snatch or Lock Stock, it kind of is, but without all the mood music and slow motion and showy camera work (and to be fair, perhaps a bit less fun).

Though it sets you up for a plot-twisty shoot ’em up, Bullhead morphs from a streetwise gangster drama (or more accurately a pasture-wise gangster drama) into a slightly Shakespearian character tragedy about halfway through. It starts like Snatch and finishes like Raging Bull, using your defied expectations as a narrative strategy (sort of like In Bruges).  What starts out complex actually turns out to be incredibly straightforward. Much in the same way Natalie Portman spent all of Black Swan becoming the Black Swan (in all that that entails, that was basically the entire movie), Matthias Schoenaerts IS the Bullhead. He all but puts a ring through his septum and headbutts a matador shouting “I. AM. BULLHEAD.” like the greatest Black Sabbath song never written.

If I’m honest, I think I might have preferred a movie that delved more into the minutiae of cattle hormone racketeering with a backdrop of Fleming-Walloon cultural tension to the tragic, extended cattle-as-masculinity metaphor that is Bullhead, but it’s a little unfair to fault a movie for not being a better movie that I just now invented in my head. Like Black Swan, the story is so competently and succinctly executed that it’s hard to criticize it for its simplicity, or because I wanted to see an anti-hero instead of a tragic hero, or because I’m a little more intrigued by the cultural politics than a native Belgian. At the very least, it’s a movie that wears its weirdness like a beef-inspector’s badge (and I mean the organic kind of weirdness, not the artificial, weirdness-for-weirdness’ sake kind). Above all, it’s a movie that’s hard to leave without thinking, “Damn, I wish there were more movies like this.”

Wait, that’s not good enough. How about this: “It’s a movie about cows that’ll leave you asking, ‘Where’s the beef!'” -Peter Holstein Hammond.


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