**** Bullhead (2011) & ** Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)
I watched two movies this weekend that were nicely representative of both ends of the cinematic spectrum circa 2012, the critically-savaged Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and Bullhead, an Oscar-nominated, quasi-crime drama from newbie Belgian writer-director Michael K. Roskam. Off and on over a few days, I struggled trying to find something worthwhile to say about the Ghost Rider sequel and quite frankly I ended up kind of stymied. I started an essay on why modern day audiences are attracted to critically-maligned films and after 1200 words, realized that I hadn’t actually said anything that hadn’t already been written about 1000 times. In a nutshell, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a well-marketed piece of comic book escapism and that pretty much all you can say about it. It’s a shoddy movie about a semi-familiar, secondary Marvel Comics character starring the almost-always bankable Nick Cage. The first film, despite a 26% rating from Rottentomatoes went on to gross $225 million and the sequel, which garnered only 17%, made $132 million. So, it’s about the money…’nuff said.
Bullhead is another story however. It’s a morally-complex and devastating character study set in the world of illegal hormone trading …. for cattle… in Belgium and yet it’s one of the most original crime films in recent memory. The Belgian beef biz is apparently run by gangsters and thugs bent on juicing livestock in an coordinated effort to hasten its journey to market for big profits – who knew? Money talks and bullshit walks as they say. Roskam focuses on a singular, tragic anti-hero named Jacky Vanmarsenille, a 30-something enforcer for a small family-run cattle farm played with searing intensity by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts. The entire film rests on Schoenaerts’ broad shoulders and riveting performance.
Bullhead is a difficult film to describe without undermining the plot’s many surprising twists and turns. This is a deftly-told tale that benefits from the audience not being sure where it’s all going. The strength of Roskam’s script relies on regularly misdirecting us and it deserves to be seen without spoilers, hence the vagueness of this review. Be forewarned however that, at times, this is definitely not an easy film to watch. The scene that defines and sets out the central tragedy at the heart of the story is beyond harrowing. Nominated for best foreign film at this year’s Oscars, Bullhead is a truly stunning film, the kind that rattles around in your craw long after the closing credits roll. Unfortunately, it also remains just the sort of film that can’t find a market amongst the increasingly-limited interests of today’s typical film audience. It managed $270,000 in worldwide box office receipts, which isn’t bad for an art house picture, but it’s relative earnings (at least when compared to a Grade-C Hollywood throw-away like Ghost Rider) once again reinforces the contention that film continues to divide into two distinct groupings; bad movies that make millions and good movies that make thousands.