borgman-posterA good mystery movie does not always fit the classic whodunit model, with all questions tidily wrapped up like the ending of a “Scooby Doo” cartoon. Some of the more intriguing films sometimes have shrouded agendas and mystifying characters whose motives remain obscure despite behavior that may seem puzzling until the film’s final moments. These films often go beyond the most cerebral sort of entertainment. This loosens a film up for moral interpretation, allowing the viewer to question not only the action on screen but what he or she might bring to such films in an attempt to discern What It All Means.

One of the great examples of such a films is Borgman, the new movie by Dutch director/writer/actor Alex van Warmerdam. The filmmaker, whose film was the Netherlands’ entry for this year’s Oscars, shows little mercy to an audience that might wish to fully understand the motivations of the bizarre characters who subtly prey on an upper middle class family trying to live in isolationist bliss. Though there is enough associative action to enlighten the cause and effect of much of the film’s action— even if some actions seem supernatural— mystery still permeates the film.

Borgman opens with a title card in quotations but attributed to no one: “and they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks.” Who “they” are and from where they “descended” and why they wish to “strengthen their ranks” remains unknown by the end of the movie. More questions will arise throughout the film, whose title alludes to the film’s main instigator of much of the film’s action, the precocious Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), an unkempt bearded man who the viewer meets as he slumbers in a makeshift but spacious hole in the ground. Warmerdam does something gripping and mysterious at the start of the film, allowing the audience a bit of dramatic irony to bias them to something vaguely sinister about him and two other men, one played by the director (a character named Ludwig) and Tom Dewispelaere (Pascal). After the enigmatic title card, we first meet the trio’s hunters: an armed man holding the leash of an enthusiastic German Shepherd, a man with a large metal spear and a stern-faced priest wielding a shotgun. The hunters never speak, and though they destroy Camiel’s hidden home, Camiel slips away in the shroud of a smoke bomb and alerts the other two, who we also meet sleeping in beds under the earth.

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It’s an opening sequence full of intrigue and tension, so when Borgman hustles into an opulent neighborhood, looking for a bath, we understand this to be a man with some possibly terrible threatening baggage. After a maid wordlessly slams a door in his face, he makes it to the home of Marina (Hadewych Minis) and Richard (Jeroen Perceval), who live with their three children and a nanny. They do allow him to open his mouth, and the words, though they end up enraging Richard into beating him up, still seem to be the key to his being given shelter by Marina. The domestic intrusion results in many startling encounters in the clash between a man who may be much more than a vagrant. Weird happenings and murder seem to abound around him.

There are also a few humorous moments that the viewer may think to understand only to have the rug of understanding pulled out from under them. The characters’ behavior follows a sort of logic of its own that keeps the film as riveting as flowing along with the slippery narrative of a dream. Though van Warmerdam drops a few narrative cues to maintain intrigue, they sometimes lead to dead ends. borgman_webSome may find this frustrating, but those who like mystery and appreciate the inherit ominous character of the unknown will appreciate Borgman. Though Marina tries to keep Camiel out of the house, holing him away in a guest house on the other side of the family’s expansive yard, with the curtains drawn, Borgman often finds his way into the main house. The youngest daughter names him first: “I saw a magician” she tells her mother.

What keeps the film engaging is the appearance of strange happenings or behavior that imply a history the audience is denied explanation for. While we know that Camiel, Pascal and Ludwig were chased out of some other town by a posse, we never know what set the locals off or what they knew about this trio of men who were simply trying to nap in their’ homes below ground. Maybe they are mischievous gnomes? Yet that would only superficially explain why the live underground. The implication that Borgman might be a demon arises when, in several scenes he is seen crouching naked over a slumbering Marina. The image appears after a domestic scene between husband and wife turns brutal, revealing she is having vivid nightmares. The influence of Fuseli’s The Nightmare, something the film’s poster artist brings up in this interview, could imply Borgman is an incubus.

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The cause and effect can be heavy-handed in this scene. But for moments like this, there are finer moments of subtly loaded with quirky implication. Two large whippets somehow enter the home and slink around, until Borgman turns to them and tells them they’ve arrived too early. The dogs then turn around and slink out. But Marina has noticed and her suspicions only grow deeper … and more illogical.

As odd and surreal the film might feel, van Warmerdam presents no heavy-handed, stylized lighting but rather a subtle interplay of light and shadow and sparing, outstanding details, like some sly Lynch-like heavy blue drapes in the couple’s bedroom or the zigzag pattern of the wallpaper in the family’s living room. The focus is always clear and sustained in deep focus. Camera movements and framing never seem to distract, daring the viewer to try to pay attention to deliberately borgman3staged medium shots for some hint of the out-of-the-ordinary. Yet Borgman feels like a rather ordinary film littered with matter-of-fact details that could turn and reveal some dark abyss the human mind was never programmed to understand. When the group of intruders put on a ballet in the home’s backyard, the family has grown uncomfortably cozy with these characters, suspending judgment to the amateurish show that features the men in tutus, yet still wearing slacks and sneakers.

So what does this all mean, many will wonder? There is a powerful allusion to Richard’s racism, and the family’s insulation from the outside world stands out. The director, who also wrote the script, seems to toy with the idea of evil as a rather banal force. He deconstructs the notion of civility in upper class suburbia by introducing the troupe of domestic intruders to this complacent family. Standing as testament to how warped the family may be is the actions of the children, who are shuffled off to school in the morning, given treats at dinner and then put to bed with story-time by the nanny. Borgman soon takes over the task, offering his own bedtime story where he tells them about “the white child above the clouds” and an ever-growing monster in a lake below. And its the youngest girl’s behavior that will probably be most remembered as the most disturbing actor in the film’s ever-twisting path into darkness.

The intrusion of this man is so far from other home invasion films. Forget about comparisons to Haneke or those dumb stalker movies from Hollywood. There’s a smart implication of an evil beyond individuals involved here. It’s metaphysical, and it will crawl under your skin.

Hans Morgenstern

Borgman runs 113 minutes is in English and Dutch with English subtitles and is not rated (however, expect disturbing behavior and nudity). It opens in South Florida on June 20 at Miami Beach Cinematheque and July 4 at the Lake Worth Playhouse in Lake Worth. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here. DrafthouseFilms provided an on-line screener for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I caught Bullhead (Rundskop) at a preview screening ahead of its loss to A Separation at the Oscars® last weekend. I can see how this Belgian film would interest the Academy but not win the award. It is a straight-forward if dreary film that opens with a voice over grumbling about becoming “fucked” for life after a wicked turn of events during childhood. The tragic finality of the statements by this ambiguous voice will reverberate throughout the film, as one domino after another collides to its hopeless ending, as promised by the narrator, who turns out to be the beefy lug Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts).

But before you can form any sympathy for Jacky, he is established as one mean sonofabitch. We meet him in physical form as he intimidates an elderly farmer in front of a threshing machine. As he warns the farmer to only buy his bulls from his father, Jacky pokes and prods the old man ever closer to the bin of the machine with the wheeled blades hovering above. Director/writer Michael R. Roskam proves he knows how to ratchet up the tension with a setpiece early in the film.

Jacky seems like a ‘roided out loose cannon with hair trigger nerves. It’s no wonder because he shoots up steroids as if it were heroine. After shooting up, he boxes at the air and snorts like the pumped beef raised by his family, who unabashedly use black market growth hormones to thicken up the animals. Just as soon as the viewer might figure to have judged Jacky as unlikable, the film will soon offer another side to him that will constantly test the limits of how much one could sympathize for this man.

During a meeting with a shady group of gangsters at a racetrack, the pumped up and nervous Jacky seems to feel like an unstable liability when Diederik “Ricky” Maes (Jeroen Perceval), a man from his past, appears among the men. The tension is vivid and unpredictable. The scenes ride along on this heavy air and culminate after Jacky turns down a visit to a brothel following the meeting. The film then flashes back 20 years into the past when Jacky was a waifish little boy. Though they cannot be more than eight years of age, Jacky and Ricky are already wondering aloud about the mystery of women and exactly how coupling with them works. When they spy Bruno, the mentally unstable son of a business associate of Jacky’s father, passing out porn magazines to a group of kids, Bruno chases after Jacky and Ricky. Bruno takes down little Jacky, and after one of the most harrowing moments of kid-on-kid abuse ever conceived in cinema, much is illuminated in what Jacky has become.

After establishing Jacky as someone you might feel no concern for, just another thug in a gangster flick, the film grows a tentacle of complexity that refuses to stop lingering over the unfolding events. When Jacky is introduced to other criminals as “our buffoon,” one could almost feel pity for this man. As the film progresses, however, the complexity of his tragic past becomes a constant echo on devolving morally questionable events, as more people from his past reemerge. Bullhead winds up feeling like an endurance test in moral ambiguity suited for those looking for something more than a fun night with popcorn, soda and a movie. This is grim, pathetic stuff.

However, Bullhead is not a roller coaster gangster flick. In fact, the film seems to drag when it turns its focus away from Jacky and to the machinations of fate closing in on him, be it spying cops or double-dealing gangsters. The presence of the sullen Schoenaerts on the screen adds the spark of electricity to the proceedings that elicit both tension and pathos. The actor brings out a humanity to Jacky that would otherwise feel difficult to swallow from many others. Though he seems doomed from the start, Jacky also feels like the greatest thing at stake at the heart of Bullhead‘s story, as the film seems to hurtle toward an inevitable, if slightly over-the-top, ending. Roskam stumbles to think he needs to inflate the melodrama with slow motion and sound effects any more than the tragic circumstances of this fellow dictate. Behind this beastly man there seems to be the last glowing ember of a soul hoping for love in a world that doesn’t bother to pause for a moment to consider his soul.

The story alone is a journey of hopeless gloom. The color palette of blacks, grays and browns illustrated the dreary mood appropriately. Though lush and reeking of old European quaintness, the sets offer little to brighten the heavy mood. Bullhead offers a twisty character study stemming from some twisted circumstances of fate, and that’s heavy enough.

Hans Morgenstern

Bullhead is rated R, runs 124 min. and is French and Dutch with English subtitles. It opens in South Florida Thursday, Mar. 1, at 8 p.m., at O Cinema in Miami. It opens wider, Friday, Mar. 2, at 6:40 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and then the following day at the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables, on the University of Miami campus, at 6:45 p.m. and further north, in Broward County, at 8:45 p.m. and Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. Finally, if you are outside South Florida, the film’s national screening dates can be found here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)