One of the emerging talents of cinema is the Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam. He has so far made only two full-length features – Bullhead (2011) and The Drop (2014) - but he has already left an indelible mark on my film-watching consciousness. Both films have created suspense through the development of characters, yet there are also elements of Shakespearean grandeur and proportions reverberating in both of his films.
One of the most impressive feats of any Shakespearean oeuvre is the master's attention to detail when crafting his characters. Yet at the same time, the Bard presents his characters with surprising detachment. We still want to see Iago or Richard III fail, but we understand them and their motives and may even have an unspoken sympathy for the evil-doers of his plays.
This is brought about because Shakespeare takes time and care to develop those characters in front of us, and they evolve before our eyes not as cardboard figures or stereotypical and one-dimensional villains, but as living and breathing, albeit misguided persons.
Rather surprisingly, Roskam manages to achieve somewhat similar results. The main characters are gradually revealed to us, warts and all, and although they are far from perfect and perhaps not even moral people – we could even call them anti-heroes - we somehow sympathize with them. Both Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts) in Bullhead and Bob (Tom Hardy) in The Drop are conflicted characters; yet they have essentially a good and decent core buried deep inside of them.
When we first meet Jacky, he recklessly heckles and bullies an old man, but only later do we learn that he is traumatized and deeply scarred by an unspeakably gruesome event in his childhood (probably the most emotionally harrowing scene I have ever seen in the movies) and that explains or at least sheds some light on his behavior and his actions.
In the second instance, Bob is partially redeemed for his actions through his love and care of animals, such as the maltreated dog he encounters in the dumpster. Although both Jacky and Bob are the protagonists, they can in no way be considered heroes, but rather humans caught up in tangled webs and fateful circumstances. Their actions are the direct result of their past experiences paving the path of their respective fates.
But the supporting cast is not neglected by neither Shakespeare or Roskam. For example, we might not like Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) because of his lack of honesty and his double dealings, but we understand the underlying reason and motive for his unethical actions; he has a sick father dying in the hospital. These details are not revealed in melodramatic fashion but within an organic scene of the film, giving even supporting cast an unusual and unexpected depth.
As a result, we can empathize with a host of characters and we feel or at least understand their anguish and pain. This is the best outset for creating effective suspense because we care about those people as we would about friends, and we do not wish anything bad to happen to them.
There is some comic relief provided by a comedic duo of characters in each of Roskam's films. They are rather silly both in their words and actions, and they provide a certain kind of humorous foil to the more dramatic elements of the work.
In Shakespeare, these characters often provide humor with their puns or deeds; in Roskam's films, they are the epitome of silliness. It is not necessarily meant as slapstick but it becomes humorous through the irony of the situation. In Bullhead, the car mechanics deem themselves clever and try to take advantage of their situation by switching wheels for an additional income; this plan terribly backfires, and they end up in piles of dung (literally, not metaphorically speaking).
In The Drop, the two brothers who think they are thugs are quite inept as well. One of them is wearing a stopped Micky Mouse watch that is revealed during a robbery, and that same detail comes to haunt him. His severed arm shows up at the crime scene with the watch still attached to it (and still not functional).
Due to the fact that Shakespeare and Roskam deal with heavy existential themes, it is helpful to occasionally lighten the mood but not to a level of distraction. In the case of Roskam, I found this more effective and more assured in his second movie as it was better integrated; unfortunately, the car mechanics in Bullhead do occasionally border on caricature, which may momentarily distract from the more relevant issues.
Shakespeare is known for tangled and complicated plots, which often contain subplots. In other hands, they might become too confusing, but the Master knows how to pull the strings and make it tight despite of its complexity.
Roskam comes close. He does not fully succeed in Bullhead as there are plot details that are interesting, but that he could have or even should have done without. In fact for a stronger emotional impact on the viewers, the movie should have predominantly focused on Jacky instead of giving us all the other perspectives of Jacky's friends as well as the investigating agents. All the added layers slow down the pace and end up distancing us from the main character.
In The Drop, he succeeds though. The presence of the investigating detective is made relevant through his connections with the characters; he also reveals a vital piece of information. His Catholic faith also links and binds him to the main character Bob. Scenes that may not seem to have immediate relevance manage to come into focus at a later stage, and hence, all in all, they create a tight structure.
Yet in both films, it will take a substantial bit of explaining to summarize the plot and that shows us that the films are not as straightforward as they come. Interestingly, everything manages to fall into place - more so again in the second film - and like a Shakespeare play, we feel a certain type of closure, which may or may not be what we had been expecting or perhaps wishing for.
To conclude, I do not mean to say that Roskam is the equivalent of Shakespeare; no one is, as a matter of fact. Yet there are certain parallels, deliberate or not, that make this Belgian director's work stand apart from other directors and makes him one of the more promising and exciting film-makers to watch and follow closely over the next years.