A cattleman who's cowed by the past
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, Feb. 24, 2012
Many terms applied to action movies - muscular, animalistic, testosterone-fueled - are literally true of "Bullhead."
This Belgian thriller, a contender for the best-foreign-film Oscar, is set among cattle farmers whose meat is illegally sauced with bovine growth hormones.
Riffing wildly on a mid-'90s case, writer-director Michael R. Roskam explores not one but two subcultures. The central figure, Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), is a Flemish cattleman in his early 30s. He has spent his whole life around cows, but just a few miles away is a different world: the discos, brothels and big-city lights of Francophone Belgium.
Jacky is bulky and beefy, thanks to regular doses of the same steroids he injects into his animals. Black-market dealers keep him well supplied, offering stuff so new "they don't even have it in the Hormonic States of America." Sometimes, Jacky supplements the veterinary dope with massive amounts of vodka.
At first, it seems that Jacky shoots steroids to make himself a more intimidating enforcer. Then a flashback to a ghastly childhood incident reveals the reason he started consuming hormones. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Jacky is no big-time gangster, even if he's something less than a model citizen.
The cattleman is about to make a black-market deal with a thuggish meat baron, De Kuyper (Sam Louwyck). But Jacky becomes skittish after he hears that De Kuyper's men have killed a police investigator working the bovine-hormone beat. Jacky finds himself connected to the crime through the French-speaking (and Flemish-hating) stolen-car dealers who provided De Kuyper's henchmen with a vehicle.
To further complicate the scenario, Jacky's traumatic past is resurfacing. He encounters the childhood pal who abandoned him at a crucial moment, Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), who's now a hormone trafficker and police informer. And Jacky begins to pursue Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), his schoolboy crush - even though she's the sister of a bully who assaulted him 20 years ago.
The cops-and-traffickers plot leads to the movie's tragic end, but it's not central. "Bullhead" is primarily a study of Jacky, exposing the psychic vulnerabilities beneath his bulging-sausage physique. None of the supporting characters is fully drawn, but Roskam does evocatively depict the complexities of the region: mist-hushed fields a short drive from throbbing rave clubs, and men who bark like characters from a multilingual Scorsese film, their blend of Dutch and French laced with English expletives.
If such details seem foreign, Jacky isn't. Powerfully embodied by Schoenaerts, he's a portrait of masculinity at the outer limits, stoked by chemicals both natural and synthetic. He's not exactly an Everyman, but there's a bit of him in every guy who has found himself pushed too far and unable to pull back.
Contains strong violence, profanity, nudity and sexual situations. In Dutch and French with English subtitles.