Götz Spielmann's Revanche, which got lots of great reviews and which I liked but didn't quite love. And for a while, Bullhead is precisely that: an artfully made melodrama.
And then something breaks in the film, or lurches. Roskam's film is able to describe – in a moment that I found totally unexpected and in clear filmic language – an event that is horrific and unspeakable. It is an event that is small, really, but which has an absolutely enormous emotional impact. This is something that will stay with me for a long time.
This event, however, doesn't really change the way that the film is attempting to function, and Bullhead stays a kind of melodrama, a film about a man's suffering and his inability to make his life work. The characters in the film's present day are all the same as the characters in the film's flashback sequences; they're just twenty years older now. It's a narrative we've seen before: young man cannot reconcile his own past; his past comes back to haunt him anyway.
Matthias Schoenaerts is absolutely phenomenal. I loved this character, and yet I knew he would do the wrong thing while trying to do the right thing. I never knew what he was going to do next, but I wished I could help him. This is a man who is simply caught in a trap – like so many cattle being led to slaughter. (The bulls are a central metaphor in Bullhead, but their metaphoric presence never overpowers, never feels contrived.)
And then, all of a sudden, Roskam's film is so much more than a simple or even a complex melodrama. It becomes clear in act three that everything from the film's first two acts was all about class. The people who carry the guns are the people in power, sure, but power differentials in mafia circles work in similar ways to power differentials in places like chic Belgian clubs where the owner makes you buy a dress shirt at the door or boutiques devoted entirely to luxuries like perfume.
Bullhead is a film made in Flanders, and the movie nods explicitly to the old tradition of Flemish landscape painting. Think of work like this:
I don't want to spoil Bullhead any more than I already have – and my narrative here omits the other character, le doulos, who is central to the film's story – but I want also to say that this film's ending is just superb. I needed to take a walk outside after it was over.
If you can handle the violence, I cannot recommend this film enough.