Barnaby Monk 5:30 a.m., Aug. 24
A police officer tries in vain to understand how a pair of questionable types, that just happen to hail from the same remote town, wind up working together on an out-of-town job. "Coincidence," she says, "is an excuse losers use when they don't know what else to say."
It's a line that should be permanently inked inside every budding screenwriter's eyelids, and one that first time writer/director Michael Roskam skillfully outmaneuvers.
Bullhead is a contemporary film noir set among Belgium's "hormone mafia" that went on to garner an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Having finally caught up with all five contenders, it's safe to say the best was saved for last.
Teenage Jacky Vanmarsenille (Robin Valvekens) is permanently mutilated by Bruno (David Murgia), a bully he accidentally spies conducting a circle-jerk in the woods. By way of settling the embarrassing score, the sex-crazed rowdy chooses to publicly emasculate the young boy with a pair bricks.
The unthinkable act plays out in flashback and under the distanced eye of Jacky's best friend (until now), Diederik (Baudoin Wolwertz). Diederik matures into a fidgeting weasel (Jeroen Perceval), a man voted by his class the most likely to become an undercover cop. If Hollywood should decide that a remake is in order, please consider Charles Martin Smith for the Americanized version.
As played by Matthias Schoenaerts, Jacky is a Brahma bull-sized adult male woefully lacking in some of the experiences and relationships that help form complete manhood. He is a thick-headed cattle farmer who takes his work home with him, injecting the same growth hormones used on his herd.
Jeroen Perceval and Matthias Schoenaerts.
20 years later, the reluctantly-reunited duo conspire with money-man Marc de Kuyper (Sam Louwyck), a shady beef trader who may have ordered the hit on a local law enforcement agent. They're joined by unethical veterinarian, Sam Raymond (Frank Lammers), who lucked upon a new steroid that leaves no trace in the bloodstream and is guaranteed to fatten calves by 10% in 8 weeks instead of 10.
Jacky's castration is not included merely to shock, although it does, and what began as a caper film quickly evolves into a personal vendetta. The childhood friends share sexual secrets. Jacky is a closeted virgin terrified that a potential lover would discover that his cupboard was bare. Diederik wanted to testify on his pal's behalf, but his father forbid it. His life was destined to be lived undercover. In addition to his clandestine police work, Diederik, who has a ferocious crush on a fellow officer, is a closeted cop.
The most fascinating aspect of the film is the frank, at times compassionate manner in which the character's sexuality is dealt with. The young boy overhears his doctor and parents conversing over the future of his manhood. Misguided mom goes so far as to question whether or not the "accident" will turn her baby gay.
Much to his discomfort, Jacky's fellow hoods tease him about his perceived sexual prowess. After sealing the deal with de Kuyper, Raymond offers to spring for a night in the Red Light District. With chin to chest and fists buried in pockets, Jacky grunts a "no," and begins to hurriedly walk home.
Normally the first to berate a film in which our hero does it all to impress a chick, I am instead reminded that there is no such thing as a bad story, only bad storytellers. The missing link in the equation is Bruno's sister, Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), another mute-witness to the crime and a childhood crush our stunted hero cannot shake. Seasoned directors can learn from duffer Michael Roskam's handling of the romantic subplot.
Not unlike a broken clock, the Academy is occasionally accurate. Given their track record, the inclusion of a film as provocative and structurally sound as Bullhead is purely coincidental.
Reader Rating: Three Stars
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