Movies like Bullhead don’t usually land Oscar nominations. One of this year’s five contenders for Best Foreign-Language Film, Bullhead isn’t a war drama, doesn’t involve precocious children or sentimental family relationships, and doesn’t come from an established international filmmaker.
Instead, director Michael R. Roskam’s first feature film eschews the familiar for gritty drama and sinewy character study set amid the strange-but-true world of Belgium's “hormone mafia”—criminals who traffic in drugs used to fatten up cattle for slaughter. The focus falls on Jacky Vanmarsenille, an inarticulate, antisocial thug hiding the physical and psychological scars of a traumatic childhood experience.
Roskam’s film and Matthias Schoenaerts’s brawny, transformative breakout performance in the lead role have already drawn comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s collaborations with Robert De Niro on Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s work with Tom Hardy on Bronson. Like those filmmakers, Roskam is interested in exploring the fine line between man and animal. Jacky’s feral nature—he communicates in grunts, withdraws from the world, and acts purely on instinct—gives him more in common with the cows on the farm than the people he struggles to connect with.
Without Schoenaerts’s dedication, Roskam doesn’t believe the film would have been possible. The actor, who next stars in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone opposite Marion Cotillard, packed on 60 pounds of muscle for Bullhead and proves equally comfortable shadowboxing in his underwear or head-butting a business associate. “Matthias was the only one who’s gonna give me the confidence to write what I want because he’s gonna put it on screen,” Roskam says. “Some people say without Matthias the movie wouldn’t stand. It’s absolutely true.”
Roskam prefers to keep mum about the root cause of Jacky’s instability—it’s a mystery throughout the film’s first act—but divulges that the twisty backstory was inspired by what happens to young pigs in the meat industry.
“The audience needs to be surprised by it,” Roskam says. “If I stop [the movie] after 10 minutes and ask the audience, ‘Do you sympathize with this character? Do you like him?’ they’re probably gonna say, ‘Not really, I’m scared of the guy.’ Then it starts to flip.”
With the film’s profile on the rise, thanks to Oscar attention and last week’s U.S. theatrical release, preserving the integrity of the carefully constructed reveal hasn’t been easy. Several American critics spoiled it in their reviews. “Most of the time it’s the critics who don’t like the movie,” Roskam says. “The critics who don’t empathize, they just get bored and they don’t like it. They don’t feel like they’re spoiling it. That’s their right to do so, but I really don’t appreciate that.”
He hasn’t had the same problem with his U.S. distributor, Drafthouse Films, the up-and-coming company spawned by famed film-geek- and hipster-friendly Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas in Austin, Texas. Drafthouse nabbed Bullhead back in November after it won three prizes at its homegrown Fantastic Fest, and it's constructed a campaign that teases the film’s neo-noir stylings without compromising the twist for audiences. “The guys from Drafthouse really understand the movie. That’s why they took it, they love it,” Roskam says.
By the time of Drafthouse’s acquisition, Bullhead was already tipped as Belgium’s official submission for Academy Awards consideration, beating out heavily favored competitor and Cannes Film Festival prize winner The Kid With a Bike from art-house favorites the Dardenne Brothers. “I was a little bit afraid, if we didn’t get nominated or even shortlisted—which is what I was expecting—people [in Belgium] would say, ‘See, we should’ve sent another film, because this one didn’t even get shortlisted.’ I was waiting for that.”
Instead, Bullhead now faces stiff competition for the win from the Iranian frontrunner, the critically adored A Separation, which won the Golden Globe. Roskam, however, is comfortable being the underdog. He’s seen his film connect with audiences in his home country—Bullhead was one of Belgium’s top 10 box-office draws last year, ahead of Transformers 3 and Fast Five—and abroad. Its list of accolades includes an Audience Award from Los Angeles’s AFI Festival. “One of the greatest things that can happen is people become passionate about something you have made,” Roskam says. “I’m really proud of that.”
Now Roskam faces the challenge of following up an Oscar-nominated debut. He’s currently developing two projects, one of which is a neo-noir crime thriller with a working title borrowed from a Nick Cave song, The Mercy Seat, which he hopes to film in the U.S. The other is a biopic that would shoot in Belgium. Whichever project comes together first, Roskam hopes to keep surprising audiences and justifying the attention he’s received for his debut.
“The guys who voted for Bullhead as [Belgium’s Oscar submission] are probably very happy they were proven to be right.”