"Bullhead" is an intense, shattering film, a confident and accomplished, punch-in-the-gut debut by Belgian writer-director Michael R. Roskam that starts out like a thriller and turns into a disturbing tragedy in an unlikely and unexpected key.
"Bullhead," one of the five contenders for this year's Oscar for foreign-language film, gets much of its ferocity, and its unlooked-for tragic implications, from the compelling performance of Matthias Schoenaerts as Jacky, its troubled protagonist.
The stubborn bullhead of the title, Jacky is an angry piece of work. A cattleman in rural Belgium, he's not only a huge physical specimen, so pumped up on steroids that he practically seems to be bursting out of his clothes, but he's also a bully and an enforcer for his domineering family.
Yet even early on, Schoenaerts' surpassing performance as a creature of barely contained fury, done with convincing body language and subtle facial expressions much more than words, allows us to see something else beneath the surface, allows us to tentatively connect with Jacky even before the entirety of his story is revealed.
The family business, not to put too fine a point on it, is the injecting of beef with illegal growth hormones to make the animals fatten faster than nature intended. While plot details are sketchy and hard to follow early on, Roskam is expert enough at creating tension that we don't feel the need to understand it all at once.
It becomes clear soon enough that Jacky's family is so successful that a major player in the local "hormone mafia" wants to do business with it. At the same time, these major players have gotten themselves involved with the death of a government agent investigating this illicit doctoring of beef, complicating everyone's lives.
All these plot strands come together when Jacky meets with Mr. Big and runs into Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), a former childhood friend he hasn't seen in 20 years and is horrified and disturbed to run into again.
At this point, "Bullhead" flashes back to that childhood (Robin Valvekens finely plays Jacky as a boy), and we get to relive the truly horrific events that made Jacky the way he is, get to experience with him the nightmare situation that is as painful to watch as anything currently on screen.
This stirring up of old memories is not good for Jacky, not good at all. But paradoxically, now that we know the past, the more savagely he acts the more we feel for him. And the more we see how tragic his fate is as a brooding outcast, all but consumed by fires of anger that can never be extinguished. Very much in the pattern of Frankenstein, Jacky is a monster we sympathize with even if we flinch at the monstrousness of what he does.
Expressively shot by Nicolas Karakatsanis, "Bullhead" makes a quiet point of periodically contrasting the bleaker-than-bleak seediness and despair of the human situation with the beauty of the surrounding countryside.
Roskam also goes to some lengths to emphasize the specificity of the bitter tribal divide in Belgium between the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish. Each side has open contempt for the other, and a few of the dialects heard are so local the film reportedly had some subtitling even in Belgium.
Inevitably, however, what remains in the mind is Jacky and how unforgettably Schoenaerts, who spent two years bulking up for the role, conveys the almost mute agony of this lost soul. More is going to be heard from him in the future (Schoenaerts already has finished Jacques Audiard's "Rust & Bone"), and if this performance is any indication, the news is going to be good.