In Bullhead, a burly, bare-chested Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone, Far from the Madding Crowd, A Bigger Splash) throws punches at thin air, Travis Bickle-style, his heavy breathing and bovine moans the only sounds. The intensely visceral, world-class performance puts Belgium’s current golden boy on the map, but perhaps even more surprising was the achievement of the first-time director that guided him through the role. Michaël R. Roskam, born Michaël Reynders, used the self-penned story of a hormone-pumping beef farmer and criminal with a troubled childhood to reveal an astounding filmic sensibility.
With long grasses weaving in the wind and oxes oozing steam amid morning mists, Bullhead goes for tactile cinema. On his first turn as a feature-length director, Roskam visually savors Limburg’s farmland, combining the milieu, dialect and farming industry with an ominous soundtrack to create the downcast setting for an increasingly suspenseful drama. The Belgian press went wild for the “film noir in West Flanders,” and Bullhead picked up an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
After all the praise, Hollywood’s gates stood ajar for the Belgian director, who followed up his 2011 debut three years later with The Drop. For his first American film Roskam, who holds a master’s degree in script writing from the Binger Film Institute in Amsterdam, opted for a screenplay by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone, Baby, Gone), adapted from the author’s short story Animal Rescue. Again, the skilful tension-building and attention to milieu – lower-class and crooked Brooklyn this time – are there; only now a bone-chilling Matthias Schoenaerts is joined by Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini in the latter’s swansong.
For his final role, the late granddad of tough-guy actors embodies bitter cousin Marv, owner of Marv’s bar and former crook who’s left the meanest parts of that gang life behind (or so we think). His popular haunt still doubles as a ‘drop’ place for illegally obtained funds to cool off and be picked back up, though. When a member of his family – meek-mannered bartender Bob (Hardy) – gets holed up by two men in masks, it’s the beginning of a lurking crime story in which betrayal and violence circle each other like vultures. While a quietly menacing Gandolfini does what he does so well, Hardy manages to strike the perfect balance between naive stooge and upstanding protector of the weak. Roskam smoothly makes room for his assembled cast, confidently taking his time to build towards the revealing climax and covering the whole plot in a gritty Brooklyn sauce. In this, he is expertly assisted by go-to cinematographer and Bullhead-collaborator Nicolas Karakatsanis.
For his third feature, Le Fidèle (or The Racer and the Jailbird in the U.S.), the director has brought his gift for a moody milieu back home. The Belgian-French co-production, which was taped in Brussels, is slated to come out sometime in 2017 and promises a doomed love story against the backdrop of the urban crime scene. With Karakatsanis behind the camera and Matthias Schoenaerts in front of it, Le Fidèle reunites the Belgian dream team once again and even expands on it: Roskam enlisted Rust and Bone-scribe Thomas Bidegain to co-author the screenplay.