It’s hard to remember the last time the filmgoing slate included a gritty drama set in the illegal Flemish beef hormone market. The Belgian release “Bullhead” contains not only those novel goods, but also a skillfully told story and unforgettable protagonist.
Credit writer-director Michael R. Roskam, making his feature debut, and actor Matthias Schoenaerts for the success of this combination crime suspenser, Greekish tragedy, Belgian-condition drama and sad fairy tale.
While not profound, this absorbing film is both unsentimental and heartfelt enough to be viewer-friendly (and snag an Oscar nomination).
Set in an area of Belgium where the language is Dutch and the winds are fateful, the drama centers on Jacky Vanmarsenille (Schoenaerts), a muscle man from a cattle-farming family that has long used illegal bovine hormones to speed up animal growth.
Jacky, too, consumes such substances. When not intimidating local farmers into purchasing his family’s juiced-up meat, he is likely to be shooting steroids into himself or swallowing pills.
The suspense begins when a shady veterinarian pressures Jacky into talking business with Marc de Kuyper (Sam Louwyck), a meat-dealing mobster linked to the assassination of a cop.
Uneasy about de Kuyper, Jacky is further unnerved when discovering that de Kuyper’s right-hand man is Diederik Maes (Jeroen Perceval), Jacky’s former friend.
With the Diederik encounter, Roskam shifts course to reveal how Jacky got to be a scary thug. Flashbacks feature a horrible childhood incident involving Jackie, Diederik and a girl named Lucia.
We also see a flip side to the menacing Jacky. In private moments, he’s a wounded child, sometimes lying in the bathtub in a fetal position and sometimes, in a sad take on “Beauty and the Beast,” displaying impossible longings for the now-adult Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy).
Nothing deep or walloping occurs as Roskam presents his themes of male aggression and the life-shattering nature of trauma. Third-act events don’t achieve the tragic resonance aimed for. Roskam supplies more plot threads and supporting characters than he can develop.
But the film is still a satisfying and sometimes spellbinding story that aims high and delivers plenty.
Roskam, who has cited the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Akira Kurosawa and American gangster films as influences, provides an effective mix of stylish grotesquerie, brutal violence and big-picture philosophy. He also addresses Belgium’s language divisions, shows a drugstore’s worth of testosterone drugs and depicts a calf’s cesarean delivery.
Schoenaerts makes Jacky an intensely physical and emotionally magnetic presence, both a bully and a humanity-filled brand of monster. It is a powerhouse performance that stays with you. So does this movie.
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval, Jeanne Dandoy
Written and directed by Michael R. Roskam
Running time 2 hours, 6 minutes