The crime film is ever evolving. As in all genres, however, plots and characters have been repeated and copied throughout the history of cinema in this ubiquitous mainstay, but it’s the gifted filmmaker that finds a new way to tell a familiar story. History tells us that European art house directors, or really any auteur from outside the States, have typically been the most adept at re-working tired formulas in the gangster milieu. With that in mind, we are currently experiencing something of a golden age in crime cinema.
Titles such as “La Haine,” the “Pusher” trilogy, “City of God,” “Gomorrah,” “A Prophet,” “Animal Kingdom,” “The Robber” and “Drive” are all, at least according to this writer, future certified classics, if not already. Even the B-level films of late have been damn strong, among them “Down Terrace,” “A Bittersweet Life” and “Infernal Affairs” springing to mind. All that being said, the Oscar-nominated “Bullhead,” picked up by Drafthouse Films for U.S. distribution, fits quite nicely in this camp. We’ve reviewed this film positively, to varying degrees, twice on The Playlist here and here.
“It’s fun to see that the genre is still alive, and that it still can be original,” said writer/director Michael R. Roskam, when we spoke with him earlier this year. “It allows you to be original and new, to break the rules and invent them again,” he added. Roskam enjoys a layered mix of entertainment and smarts in crime films, a balance he strikes quite nicely in his debut effort, which follows Jacky (played impeccably by Matthias Schoenaerts, in what should be a star-making role) trying to navigate the Belgian beef steroid mafia underworld (who knew such a thing existed?) while also dealing with a drummed-up moment of brutality from his past that changed his life inexorably.
In his “neo-noir gangster tragedy,” Roskam tackles the plot elements we’ve seen before – police trying to solve a murder, deals being brokered amongst criminals – but mixes them with Jacky’s psychology. “It’s double layered,” he says. “It’s a character study, but at the same time it’s not only just him [Jacky] fighting against himself, but also against the whole world surrounding him.”
The kernel for the screenplay of “Bullhead” started taking shape once Roskam, still studying painting at the time, heard about a real life murder of a veterinarian in Belgium who refused to play the game with this criminal organization. Even though the filmmaker spent some time as a journalist (something he calls an accident), it only helped him indirectly on his research for the film, as he consulted other, more seasoned investigative journalists he met during this time in his career.
As for his star Schoenaerts, who gives a hulking and dangerous, yet wholly sympathetic, turn as Jacky (a performance in many ways, but mostly in its physicality, akin to the magnetic one given by Tom Hardy in “Bronson”), Roskam said he “wanted a kind of constructed masculinity in a physical and mental way.” Because of the confidence, mutual trust and support between the filmmaker and his star, the movie is what it is now thanks to this partnership, one that began with a short in 2005 called “The One Thing You Do.”
It's the character of Jacky that gives “Bullhead” a different feel than most gangster movies. Criminal environments in movies are often populated with an abundance of testosterone, and great filmmakers find a way to gain audience sympathy and/or empathy for its characters, but the depths plumbed by both star and director with Jacky are rare in the genre. “I didn’t invent this kind of storytelling,” said Roskam. “Martin Scorsese and Sam Peckinpah did it, and I love those movies where you can feel compassion about someone that you actually are not supposed to like because of moral standards.”
Roskam believes when he’s writing that things are not black and white and that people tend to do things because they are reacting. “That’s what you do when you write these stories,” he said. “And if you don’t know how that works, you just put ‘Taxi Driver’ on and it’ll teach you.”
As for that Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category, the director was humble and genuinely excited, saying that initially, simply being nominated was the award in itself ( (it ended up losing to "A Separation"). “We all have egos, if you put us in a game, we want to win,” he said. It’s already opened up doors for him in America, where he’s developing an English language project, possibly as his follow up film. In many ways, Roskam said, if none of this attention had happened things would be much simpler, and he’d already know what to do next. But it is a good problem to have.
"Bullhead" is out on DVD today.