You can usually tell how seriously a movie takes itself by how clearly it designates and distinguishes its comic relief. A confident drama tends to permit levity wherever it might sneak in, allowing seriousness to speak for itself; a less confident work, on the other hand, feels the need to isolate laughter, so that elsewhere the heavy stuff is all that’s left. In Bullhead, Michael R. Roskam’s ham-fisted noir about meat and machismo, clear-cut comedy is delivered in the form of two bumbling cartoon car mechanics, stock jesters whose function is apparent on sight. This might seem like a minor point, but it’s telling: It suggests that this insecure film, lacking confidence in the strength of its central drama, considers cliché its only recourse. Because while the story at its core is told with both force and conviction, Bullhead ultimately oversells itself, posing as an epic without the substance of one.
In a way, Bullhead‘s ambition in this regard is commendable, if in practice unsuccessful. It’s an attempt to stretch a slender character study into something wider and more self-consciously significant, which, had the filmmakers exercised a degree of insight and nuance, might have yielded something major. What resulted instead is a mess, its narrative confused and poorly navigated, even though the story itself could be relayed in a newspaper article—which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is precisely the origin of the premise. Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts), a cattle farmer strung out on steroids, begins a meat-trading partnership with a group known colloquially as the “hormone mafia,” a roughly sketch bunch suspected in the recent murder of a police detective. These proceedings, which dominate the film’s first act, have the feel of an entirely typical crime drama, but it becomes clear after a flashback to Jacky’s childhood that the mafia deal itself is much less important than the trauma it causes to resurface.
It’s difficult to talk about the film’s most egregious faults without revealing the nature of the traumatic event at its core, so I should stress that Bullhead frames its reveal as a capital-T twist that’s meant to shock and surprise us—and the implications of framing that way are part of the problem. (Spoilers herein.) What emerges is that as a young boy, Jacky’s testicles were crushed beyond repair by a bully wielding a large rock, an event made veritably exploitative by a rather crass use of slow motion, and in adulthood this permanent lack defines him completely. The problem here, ideologically, is not so much that Jacky as a character is depicted as unable to cope with castration (that could have been explored, in a different context, with intelligence and sensitivity), but that he becomes, by the film’s end, an essentially tragic figure, a man perceived as less than one by himself and the film he’s stuck in.
The tragedy of it all is underlined in thick felt-tip pen, the daily horror of his life unmistakable. This feels less like an earnest attempt to understand how a man might adapt to living without testicles than an unchallenged assumption that it just wouldn’t be possible. Any sense of empathy for Jacky is gradually drained from the film, replaced by pity and fear, and from the visual parallels drawn between him and his animals to the very title of the film, it’s obvious that we’re meant to regard him as fundamentally inhuman. Bullhead fails to challenge any preconceptions of masculinity or biological essentialism despite establishing the perfect narrative framework from within which to do so, and in the end probably does more harm to the subject than good.
Perhaps these issues could have been neatly avoided had Bullhead deigned to relegate Jacky’s physical lack to the sidelines of the story, where the film’s ideas about manhood might have seemed less obviously misguided. The Sun Also Rises also features a male lead with a similar (though actually undefined) disability, but there the problem only lingers in the background, present but only implied, and though it certainly affects him and his happiness, Jake Barnes isn’t wholly defined by his impotence. In Bullhead, however, everything is explicated in full, and its apparent thesis smacks of narrow-mindedness: “Living without balls is impossible” (tough luck, women and eunuchs), a dumb idea here writ large. What Bullhead ultimately lacks isn’t balls, but insight and empathy. It’s just too stubborn and self-seriousness to see it.