Oscar nominated films are often hard to approach- at least for me. As much as I try to erase any preconceptions I have going in I still at times can’t help but try to hold it to higher standards. Such is the case with BULLHEAD- a film that had I checked it out without the Oscar nomination cloud I probably wouldn’t have liked it or disliked it any more or less, but part of me still just doesn’t quite see what makes it one of the best foreign language films of 2011. Don’t get me wrong, I do like this film, but there’s enough here that underwhelmed me to the point that I kind of just had to shrug my shoulders and accept that in terms of quality, my tastes differ greatly to that of the folks in the Academy.
The film follows a hot-headed cattle farmer that is constantly injecting himself with steroids and is in the business of also “beefing” product. He makes a deal with some shady characters and gets wrapped up in a murder investigation as well as reliving demons from his traumatic past. Strong performances anchor an otherwise very slow and somber film that always feels like something horrendous is about to happen but rarely does. It is an interesting concept nonetheless and while I would have liked a little more mayhem along the way the film is, for the most part, an effective and engaging drama.
I can easily recognize the type of things that make a film like this attractive at awards season, but at times I guess I was just expecting something that had a much more predominant impact at the end. As it is though, there are some pretty hard hitting moments of drama and tension, but overall I wasn’t blown away and even a little bored during stretches. BULLHEAD has all the grit and attitude of some of the best crime thrillers/dramas, but for me it lacked the bite that the most memorable ones had- and does so while tinkering with the back and forth morality of characters and at times it hovers on hitting something great but just never broke through.
One of the other redeeming aspects of the film is that it also has a sense of humor about it to break up the gloom of some of the heavier story elements. There are plenty of shocking moments including one involving children that isn’t graphic, but the nature of what is happening is horrifying enough. The laughs are of a darker nature serving seemingly to make the viewer somewhat uncomfortable, but that could easily depend just how dead serious you want to take the material.
BULLHEAD is as watchable as it is because the performances by almost everyone in the film minor or major are pretty great. No one in particular stands out quite as much as Matthias Schoenaerts who plays the main character of Jacky and Jeroen Perceval who plays Jacky’s former childhood friend Diederik. These two provide the two most interesting characters in the film- one the victim of a tragic attack as a child that influences who he is in the present day and the other a witness to the attack and as the two grew apart are on two different sides of the law. Once they come face to face again there are a slew of emotions and reactions from anger to pity that are some of the stronger moments of the film for me.
I can’t begrudge anyone who believes that BULLHEAD is a phenomenal film, but for me it falls well below some of the most memorable for me. My problems have almost nothing to do with quality or flaws in the film itself and almost everything to do with personal preferences and overall connection to the material. I do feel though that the film becomes a bit unfocused at times which is what kept me from feeling like I could immerse myself into the film completely and actually caused me to check out at points. As it is though, BULLHEAD is a crime drama that could serve as a enormously pleasant surprise for anyone who just stumbles upon it not knowing anything about it, but for someone like me that anticipated finally checking it out with the Oscar nomination behind it the film ended up being just satisfying enough to at least recommend it as a rental.