Strong as an Ox, by Scott Nye
Film Noir is a label as descriptive as it is sometimes limiting. The tendency is to apply it only to crime films from a set time in American history (generally 1945-1955), and those to trade in similar tropes (the lonely detective, the mystery element, the femme fatale, the striking cinematography, etc.). But what film noir is really about the the seedy underbelly of contemporary society, some broken element of our assumptions of what’s essential in the modern world. In that way, Michaël R. Roskam’s Bullhead, a chronicle of criminal activities in an essential industry (beef) through the perspective of a damaged soul, is quintessential modern noir.
It will probably come as little surprise to many viewers that the beef industry is fueled in no small part by growth hormones and other “food-enhancing” drugs, and Roskam thankfully doesn’t let his film become a simple exposé. He instead extrapolates the drug culture of the food industry to its natural conclusion, directly engaging the people who run in into the same cycle they perpetuate. Jacky (Matthias Schoenarts), a cattle farmer whose day job is closer to that of a mob enforcer, is a lumbering man seemingly built entirely of muscle. We discover early on his addiction to increasingly large doses of testosterone, and Schoenarts makes evident the effect of these drugs in every second of his screen time. Jacky wavers between intense physical focus and total inability to focus on the task at hand, constantly looking like he’s a few days behind on sleep, and paranoid to the end.
And with good reason. The criminal enterprise is shady enough to begin with (what with them being criminals and all), but the element that drives the plot ties in directly to something very personal to Jacky, an element of himself he’d outwardly buried long ago, but is inwardly haunting him more every day. There is a line of thinking that good dramatic writing builds a plot that acts both as a compelling story and also provides an avenue by which the protagonist will grow, or change, or be further revealed, and, at least on that second level, Bullhead is ingenious. I can’t say, however, that the plot machinations were terribly compelling, and considering how little we have to go on at the beginning – a series of loosely-connected events that only later make any actual dramatic, thematic, or contextual sense – that’s a big problem.
Don’t get me wrong, Bullhead is not an ineffective film, just a disproportionately balanced one. Roskam and Schoenarts concocted a tremendous character with a history that clearly goes much deeper than the considerable depths to which we’re privy, but Roskam’s otherwise-realistic world seems to revolve solely around Jacky’s psychological state. It is as though, were he to die, this world would cease to be.
Bullhead’s power comes from its visceral charge and grimy detail – you can’t smell it, but you can feel the stench of the farm, emanating from both the animals and their caretakers. It manages to squeeze in some insight into addiction both of substance and of work, and here, where the two intersect. It’s an involving character piece that’s spare on plot, as though Douglas Sirk came up in the grindhouse system, though Sirk had the good sense to maintain an air of fantasy. Ultimately, a very passable modern noir with aspirations to higher rafters. Nothing wrong with that.