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When I first spoke to Michael Roskam six weeks ago, an Oscar nomination for his feature film debut was still nothing more than a fleeting dream. The filmmaker's thriller "Bullhead" had played some notable festivals since debuting at the Berlin Film Festival in February of 2011, but a best foreign language film nomination? Even after being selected to represent his native Belgium in this year's competition, it seemed during our conversation like Roskam was just enjoying the ride and hardly expected anything more. That all changed on January 24 when "Bullhead" became the first Belgian film nominated since "Everybody Famous!" in 2001 and the seventh overall since 1971.
Set in the Belgian province of Limburg, "Bullhead's" hero is thirty-year-old cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille (a stellar Matthias Schoenaerts) who is constantly dealing with anger issues due to his need to take hormone injections. Jacky is haunted by a childhood tragedy and outside his commitments to the family business has become somewhat isolated socially from the rest of the world. When a government policemen is killed, Jacky and his extended family end up becoming entangled with a dangerous cattle mafia and their lives are quickly at stake.
Remarkably, Roskam brings an authenticity to his organized crime world in the picture, but he's the first to admit the "mafia" he introduces is more inspired by American mob movies than anything back home. Yes, there are cattle farmers using steroids and drugs to illegally pump up their cattle and government corruption around it, but it's hardly been a war zone.
"It's kind of a just a combination of trying to check out the possibility of this very particular crime scene in Belgium," Roskam says of his storytelling process. "This one guy, a little bit of an Elliot Ness character, was killed in the ‘90’s. I mean, he was an inspector and he wanted to do his job and they warned him. And some guys took it personally and killed the guy."
That incident became Roskam's prime inspiration for "Bullhead." He notes, "That was one thing and I thought, 'O.K., I’m going to use this,' it’s so unique, like exotic. You know, farmers and gangsters combined to one? I mean, that’s perfect. But at first, I wasn’t interested in telling the true story behind it, that’s not my style."
Instead, Roskam used three related themes -- innocence, powerless and impotence -- to come up with a backstory for his hero which would work within his new world.
"I was just trying to find a good story [for him]," Roskam says. "And then I came up with this idea with these kids brutalizing each other. When I came up with that, it was like inspired by how they treat pigs [on some farms]. Like male pigs are castrated -- and I was kind of fascinated by this, you know, it’s action of how they do this and this [having] kid, one kid brutalizing another kid and calling him a pig and they were going to do what they do to dirty pigs."
Roskam stops for a moment and pointedly remarks, "It’s hard to talk around it without spoiling the secret of the story."
(Audiences are still surprised even when they realize it's coming. It's that effective.}
And while the "secret" eventually comes to light about half way through the picture it's not based on any urban myth or real life incident Roskam had heard of it. He admits, "It was just something that had, kind of shockingly occurred in my own imagination."
As a filmmaker, Roskam shows tremendous visual flair and expert staging in "Bullhead," but it's this key moment featuring a young Jacky that is one of his more impressive sequences. For many men it will be hard to watch, but Roskam surprises by revealing women and sometimes mothers have a harder time dealing with the scene then the men in the audience because "they identify with the kid as being their son."
Sadly, "Bullhead" will have a tough time winning over the much older members of the Academy who have the time to see all five nominees (and therefore are allowed to vote in the category), but it has an excellent shot at becoming a breakout art house hit for fledging distributor Drafthouse Films.
Many times, studios use a foreign language film nomination to open a picture like "Bullhead" after the Oscars win or lose. but Drafthouse Films is opening the picture in limited release on Friday to get a jump on the competition. And that's an excellent reminder to suggest you catch "Bullhead" on the big screen when it comes to a theater near you. Roskam is one of those directors who is one film away from being the next big thing in Hollywood. Jump on his bandwagon at the beginning with "Bullhead."