Director: Michael R. Roskam
Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval, Jeanne Dandoy
Synopsis: A young cattle farmer is approached by a veterinarian to make a deal with a notorious beef trader.
An opening voiceover pretty much explains the theme of Michael R. Roskam’s dark mix of character study and gangster drama, but its generic blandness does little to prepare the viewer for the truly sickening act of violence which provides Bullhead’s pivotal moment. It occurs in a somewhat misjudged flashback about thirty minutes into the film when it should really have been shown from the outset in order to enable us to get a better handle on Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts), the film’s taciturn central character.
Jacky is a cattle farmer in the Limburg area of Belgium. He’s a huge man — a bull of a man — and we first meet him as he’s intimidating a rival farmer. The camera pulls back to watch Jacky walk away from the encounter, and we get a sense of the rage seething within him. His impressive frame is the result of regularly injecting steroids, to which he has access because of his job. But although Roskam shows us Jacky shadow boxing after taking the steroids a couple of times, it becomes increasingly clear that his motivation isn’t for physical prowess as a means to power, but a false expression of his masculinity, itself a by-product of his being prescribed testosterone following the horrific incident when he was ten-years-old.
Bullhead works best as a character study of the psychologically scarred Jacky, but it’s wrapped around a sub-plot involving the brokering of a deal with Marc DeKuyper (Sam Louwyck), a notorious criminal selling illegal growth agents who is behind the murder of an undercover cop. One of DeKuyper’s stooges is Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), Jacky’s estranged childhood friend who was with him on the fateful day that changed his life, and their unwanted reunion kick-starts Jacky’s revisiting of the traumatic events. This reawakening of suppressed memories prompts him to seek out Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), the sister of the boy responsible for the trauma suffered by the young Jacky; it’s a difficult encounter which only serves to ram home Jacky’s sense of isolation and despair.
Bullhead is pretty dark stuff, and while it’s well made and benefits from a superb lead performance from Schoenaerts, it suffers from a confusing opening and a tendency to be too easily distracted from its main strand by the organised crime sub-plot which never proves to be as compelling as it should. Roskam depicts Limburg as a bleak rural wasteland, using muted tones to create an ominous undertone to a tale that can only really have one outcome. Thankfully, that conclusion serves as a blessed relief for Jacky, a character who retains audience sympathy despite his sporadic fits of rage and violence.