An ambitious debut by director Michael R. Roskam, the Belgian crime drama Bullhead is sometimes clumsy, often brutal, and always gripping. It was nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but was in the unenviable position of competing against the superb A Separation.
The movie begins as a standard mob movie and quickly morphs into something more emotion-driven. Matthias Schoenaerts plays Jacky Vanmarsenille, a muscular thirtysomething loner who helps run the family cattle business, which is heavily involved in the Belgian “hormone-mafia”, relying on steady supplies of illegal growth hormones to boost business. They draw police scrutiny after getting involved with a shady vet named DeKuyper (Sam Louwyck), who arranges the murder of a police officer.
Jacky is opposed to the arrangement, especially when he learns that DeKuyper’s right-hand man is Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), Jacky’s childhood friend until a shocking incident maimed Jacky (leaving him reliant on large doses of testosterone) and drove a wedge between their families. The return of Diederick, as well as that of childhood crush Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), send Jacky into an emotional tailspin.
Roskam at times has have trouble balancing Bullhead‘s crime-story narrative with its portrait of Jacky’s fractured psyche, often shifting gracelessly between the two. Nevertheless, Schoenaerts succeeds in delivering a nuanced portrayal of a tragic character, eliciting a small degree of sympathy for a very unlikeable man. His performance holds the film together, balancing Jaky’s vulnerability with the character’s capacity for hair-trigger violence.