Beasts of Western Europe: Bullhead and Wolf on Netflix Instant

wolf and bullhead on netflix streaming
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“Man is a rope, tied between beast and Superman—a rope over an abyss.” —Nietzsche

When you think of beefed-up Euros going apeshit on the silver screen, Van Damme and Schwarzenegger probably come to mind before heady art house flicks. Rather than glorify alpha-male violence, Bullhead (2011, Belgium) and Wolf (2013, Netherlands) are films that delve into its psychological underpinnings and criminal repercussions with stunning visceral and emotional results.

Both stories pit their protagonist as a man walking the tightrope between brutish beast and conscientious being. Both even go so far as to flesh this paradox out with a sort of reverse anthropomorphism (man becomes bull, man becomes lupine predator).

Matthias Schoenaerts in Bullhead drinking vodka

Matthias Schoenaerts in Bullhead: GOT VODKA?

I know I may come off as a bit of a horse’s ass (reverse-anthropomorphic pun intended) for opening with a Nietzsche quote, but I think it’s relevant here. The maniacal German philosopher’s notion of the “he-man”—or Übermensch—is probed bluntly and bleakly in both Wolf and Bullhead. Sure, we see the aesthetic glory and brutal splendor that Nietzsche lusted after (and that Hollywood loves to commodify), but we also see these notions deflated and emasculated in the most devastating ways.

If you want two great crime movies with similar themes, here they are. If you want two great crime movies that make you go off on Nietzschean existential tangents, here they are as well.

Bullhead
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Much like Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, director Michaël R. Roskam’s Bullhead is a devastatingly bleak European gangster flick that ventures into the more obscure areas of criminal enterprise. It also deals with the dynamic of a juvenile friendship, beginning in adulthood and flashing back to a horrific juncture that created a shameful rift between the boyhood mates.

In this sense, Bullhead plays a bit like a minimalist, apolitical version of The Kite Runner—if only Khaled Hosseini’s story had been put in the hands of Nicolas Winding Refn (a particular, neon-lit club scene could have been seamlessly woven into any of the Pusher films).

Bullhead sets its ominous tone from the opening frame, with a monologue played over a shot of a misty field. The not-so-upbeat narration ends this way: “No matter how long ago it was, there will always be someone to bring it all back. Because no matter what you do or think, one thing is for sure, you’re always fucked. Now, tomorrow, next week or next year, until the end of time, fucked.”

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Bullhead expresses the natural sentiment associated with sublime Belgian pastures: We’re all fucked.

The film’s tortured, brooding protagonist is Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts). Jacky has taken over his family’s corrupt livestock business, and for reasons I can’t disclose without playing spoiler, has an escalating habit of shooting himself in the ass with bovine growth hormones.

The film pushes this notion of the intermingled similarities between beast and man to the point that you almost expect Jacky to morph into a minotaur. But this isn’t necessarily a setback if you can dig a film based on slow, foreboding character study.

I also can’t emphasize the word “brooding” highly enough in regard to Schoenaerts’ magnificent portrayal of a gloomy beefcake who trudges through life with a menacing chip on his shoulder. And like any prodded bull, Jacky is prone to fits of severe, blind rage.

The film’s narrative unfolds around Jacky reuniting with his former bestie (Jeroen Perceval of Borgman) as the  Vanmarsenille farm is linked to a mafia hit. As Jacky meets with a gang boss and tries to keep his family business in check, a lost love from his past also enters the picture. With the pressure on, Jacky eventually breaks out of the pen. And what ensues is a bit like watching a bull in a China shop.

Jeroen Perceval Bullhead Borgman

Jeroen Perceval, most recognizable from Borgman—that creepy Dutch movie about the devil doing home invasions.

Bullhead excels as a disturbing character study of an alpha male in mental anguish and turmoil. It’s a refreshing departure from Hollywood, where a guy like Matthias Schoenaerts would be designated to mindless roles in movies where a bunch of shit blows up. In other words, it’s kind of like watching Requiem for a Dream… starring Vin Diesel.

The film’s conclusion isn’t exactly satisfying, but hey, it’s a movie about a guy who injects bull testosterone into his ass. What did you really expect?

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 7.4

Wolf
wolf movie Marwan Kenzari gun

If Drake were to make a biopic about Drake, he would probably want  his inflated ego to come across much like Marwan Kenzari’s character of Majid in director Jim Taihuttu’s Wolf. Drake, of course, likes portraying himself in gritty black-and-white videos as a version of himself that isn’t softer than a tumble-dryed down pillow. And like Drake’s vision of himself, Majid is a muscle-bound, culturally conflicted badass who started from the bottom and… well, you get the gist.

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Aubrey “Drake” Graham: the menacing figurehead behind albums like Take Care, and tours like Would You Like a Tour?

I digress. We meet Majid—a Muslim of Moroccan heritage—as he and his sketchy buddy Amil (Chemseddine Amar) casually discuss speed bikes on a vacant street while window-shopping. Next thing we know, they’re bashing in a storefront and going full-fledged GTA.

The laid-back dialogue of this scene contrasted with its ensuing criminal violence brings to mind Pulp Fiction. It’s a bit like watching very small-time versions of Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega chop it up about foot massages and Le Big Mac before unleashing their vengeance.
Jules Winnfield Vincent Vega Pulp Fiction foot massage

This scene isn’t the only one in which Wolf borrows from the sleek badassery of American crime classics. There’s also as much Tony Montana shit going on here as the next rags-to-riches gangster flick. And in terms of that reverse-anthropomorphic thing, there’s a moment where Majid confronts his spirit animal and director Taihuttu essentially plagiarizes one of the most poetic scenes from Deerhunter.

But perhaps the most relevant comparison for Wolf would be Mathieu Kassovitz’s brilliant La Haine (1995)—another black-and-white flick depicting petty crook life in Euro slums and backdropped by a hip-hop aesthetic and soundtrack. (There’s a fantastic—albeit hyperbolic—montage in Wolf that shows Majid and Amil making their crime comeuppance set to hilarious Euro thug rap that name drops Keyser Soze and Julius Caesar. An American remake could definitely use this 2 Chainz song…)

Like La Haine, Wolf gets into the sociopolitical nature of racism and systemic corruption in what outsiders might typically think of as idyllic European cities (La Haine‘s Paris and Wolf‘s Utrecht). The inner struggle that Majid faces as a brutish kick boxer and criminal mixed with his family’s strict Islamic heritage is particularly engaging, and points to the film’s highlight—a remarkable and dynamic performance from Kenzari (who is starting to get some Hollywood play in the film’s wake).

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Majid’s two-timing girlfriend Tessa: the Dutch Alexandra Daddario

Wolf is certainly a more entertaining and more rapidly paced film than Bullhead. That said, it can easily be criticized of being influenced by American films like Raging Bull, Pulp Fiction and Deerhunter almost to the point of copyright infringement. Still, Kenzari’s breakout performance as a conflicted he-man struggling between family, pride, honor and infamy is worth the 122-minute runtime alone. Add in some fantastic cinematography and gripping fight scenes, and Wolf makes for one of the more impressive recent additions to Netflix Instant’s strong cache of foreign crime cinema.

GRADE: B+ / A- 
IMDb: 7.3

-Sam Adams

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The Dark Valley on Netflix Instant: Sam Riley Takes Control in Spaetzle Western

the dark valley sam riley
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If I had to pick my top contributors to the Western movie genre, the name John would not be among them. I would forego Wayne, Ford and Huston for the likes of Sam (Peckinpah), Sergio (Leone), Larry (McMurtry) and Cormac (McCarthy). Now I know that the work of these later auteurs stands on the shoulders of classic Westerns of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Films like The Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Searchers at one time defined the face of American pop culture.

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The Duke: as American as apple pie, Don Draper and lung cancer.

But in the same way that it’s a ridiculously antiquated, sentimentalist notion to call Citizen Kane the greatest movie ever made, it should be acknowledged that Western filmmaking and its underlying ideologies have changed and, lord forbid, evolved since the era of neckerchief-clad, lassoo-twirling dandies roundin’ up Injuns.

More to the point: I like my Westerns weird, bleak and bloody. I love the heightened style and sparse dialogue that Leone and Eastwood pioneered. And while The Wild Bunch isn’t my favorite Peckinpah movie, it introduced concepts to the genre that had been missing—namely blood, the vulgarity of humans killing humans, and an outlaw’s sense of humor about these things.

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Sam Peckinpah had his head in the right place (pictured with Isela Vega on the set of 1974’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia).

But one thing hasn’t changed. From Ford to Leone and Peckinpah to modern classics like No Country for Old Men, Hollywood—and the world at large—seems as smitten with the genre as it was back in the days of Hopalong Cassidy.

The past few decades have seen some sterling additions, including Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, what an asshole of a title) and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005).

Guy Pearce The Proposition

Guy Pearce in Australia’s The Proposition—one of the best Westerns of the past few decades.

Those last two films come from a Kiwi and an Aussie director, respectively. I mention this because the genre has become so widespread that the lore of the American West has perhaps been best expressed over the past decade via foreign manifestations.

Which brings us to Germany, where in the 1960s, a Western film movement based on Karl May’s Winnetou books brought cowboys and Indians to the Krauts. But times have changed, and the German-Austrian film The Dark Valley is to Winnetou what No Country was to those “John” classics.

It’s a Western that draws from several corners of the Earth to shape its familiar yet refreshingly stylized narrative. While the title of “Best German Western Ever” might not impress, I’ll further that by saying that Dark Valley is one of this millennium’s stronger additions to one of the most beloved and badass genres of all-time.

The Dark Valley
sam riley the dark valley

The first time I watched The Dark Valley, I couldn’t stop thinking about Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973). Like Drifter, Valley introduces us to an ominous and silent figure who enters a small town on horseback. In both films, it’s hinted at early on that our mysterious protagonist has arrived to avenge horrific sins of the past. And in both films, it is a dark, torturous secret in the town’s history that is the calling card for bloody retribution.

But High Plains Drifter isn’t the only film that seems to have heavily influenced director Andreas Prochaska’s suspense tale set in the 19th Century Austrian Alps. There’s an undercurrent of fear and unease among the townsfolk perpetrated by some dark secret that’s reminiscent of what was going on in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.

And then there’s the snowy, ramshackle lumber town itself—and one particular climactic scene involving this setting—that brings to mind Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (a film that’s in or near my all-time top ten). Finally, there’s some wonderfully stylistic audiovisual sequences that evoke that eerie theme from Ravenous, the score from There Will Be Blood, or really just about any moment in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Drive.

So there’s your laundry list of comparisons. I mention them mainly because The Dark Valley is a film of patchwork style and influence. This eclectic range extends to its superb lead, Sam Riley—the lone British actor cast in a German film with German dialogue (Important note: Netflix defaults to a dubbed version for U.S. audiences—switch to German with English subtitles).

Control: phenomenal movie.

Riley in Control: phenomenal movie.

Which raises the question, Where the fuck has Sam Riley been? He broke through with his incredible depiction of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007)—a film I’d put alongside Ida (also on Netflix Instant) as having the most stunning black-and-white cinematography of the 21st Century. Since, he’s had forgettable roles in big-budget flicks (Maleficent) and a few big roles in forgettable indie flicks (On the Road, Brighton Rock).

Anyway, old Sam returns to form in The Dark Valley as Greider, a Yank who’s travelled to an isolated Austrian mountain town under the guise of an Ansel Adams-inspired photographic mission.

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Portrait of the gunman as a young artist…

The town is run by Old Brenner, an iron-fisted tyrant who, along with his six sons, upholds a decades-old tradition of shame that keeps the villagers in perpetual fear. Tensions begin to mount as a girl whose family Greider is staying with finds herself in line for the sadistic ritual.

Like Riley’s performance, The Dark Valley builds with a slow burn that might detract viewers looking for a 3:10 to Yuma-style shoot ’em up. Valley is an atmospheric Western. Part of that means Sam Riley spending quite a bit of time brooding while he looks at himself in a mirror, backdropped by eerie noise music. It also means plenty of gorgeous camera work around the sublime snow-covered valley where the film is set.

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Ah, the Alps: Home to Sound of Music, frolicking goats and inbred psycopaths.

When the chips begin to fall, however, the film is as suspenseful and stylistically glorious as any of the recent Western triumphs I’ve mentioned. In particular, the brilliant cinematography mixed with Riley’s escalating emotional range bring us to one of the most phenomenal climactic shootout scenes the genre has seen in the past few decades. Director Prochaska embellishes all of this with a murderous montage set to the tune of a song by indie band Steaming Satellites (although I’m sure some purists may hate this scene for its hyperreal blending of new and old).

the dark valley netflix instant

Rooster Cogburn wants his eyepatch back…

Due to its initially tedious pace and rather conventional narrative, The Dark Valley isn’t exactly on the same level as modern classics like The Three Burials, The Proposition and No Country. Still, when pitted against the slew of simply above-average Western flicks of the past few years that Netflix Instant has to offer (Sweetwater and Blackthorn come to mind), Valley is a damn fine piece of filmmaking, aided particularly by Prochaska’s style, Thomas Kienast’s cinematography and Riley’s controlled performance.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.2

-Sam Adams