Bullhead (Drafthouse Films), the Belgian film that’s an Oscar nominee in this year’s foreign-language category, is a movie with a long to-do list. It starts as a moody mob thriller, then shifts into an anguished character study and, eventually, into a kind of Greek tragedy about the inexorable pull the past exerts on the present. Crammed in there somewhere are a reflection on the nature of masculinity, a comic-relief subplot involving two bumbling auto mechanics, and a scene in which the hero—or is he a villain?—assists in the delivery of a calf via Caesarean section.
Bullhead doesn’t pull off all of these shifts with equal grace, but it’s a powerful and fascinating movie about a subject I can almost guarantee you’ve never spent much time thinking about: the Flemish black-market trade in illegal beef hormones. Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts) comes from a family of cattle farmers who’ve been doctoring their cows’ feed with growth hormones for two generations: A flashback shows 10-year-old Jacky looking on as his father and uncle engage in the practice. In Jacky’s adulthood, the trade in illegal substances has gotten more technologically sophisticated, and more sinister. A shady veterinarian (Frank Lammers) opens the trunk of his car to offer Jacky substances that can escape detection by inspectors, boasting, “They don’t even have this in the Hormonic States of America.“
It’s not long till we discover that the Vanmarsenille family’s cattle aren’t the only ones getting a hormone boost. Alone in his room, Jacky injects himself with some of the chemicals, then washes down pills of unknown origin with alcohol. His unnaturally bulked-up body, and the hair-trigger ‘roid rage that goes with it, make Jacky a natural choice to play the Vanmarsenilles’ strongman, traveling the countryside to intimidate farmers into dealing exclusively with his family’s business. But his long, large-boned face wears a permanent expression of almost comical sadness (Schoenaerts’ extraordinary face, which can resemble an El Greco painting one moment and the young Nicolas Cage the next, is writer-director Michael Roskam’s most powerful asset.) At 30, Jacky is an unmarried loner with no interest in accompanying his brother Stieve (Kristof Renson) on visits to the red-light district. After a day spent intimidating tough guys with his massive frame, he goes home and curls up in a fetal position in the bathtub. The first 20 minutes of the movie get the viewer asking, “Where did this guy get his weird combination of aggression and fragility?" The next 20 minutes answer that question with a vengeance.
The crooked vet offers to expand the Vanmarsenilles’ influence—by putting Jacky in contact with a West Flanders crime boss, Marc Decuyper (Sam Louwyck) and his flack Diederik (Jeroen Perceval). As it turns out, Diederik and Jacky were childhood friends who haven’t seen each other since an awful event that took place 20 years before (cue an extended flashback that, while not gory, contains an act of violence that’s as hard to watch as anything I’ve seen on a movie screen in years). Reliving this trauma triggers a chain reaction in Jacky, with one bad choice leading to another in seemingly fateful succession.
Roskam, making his feature film debut, establishes a nice mood of stately gloom, but he's never fully in control of the movie's tone. What starts out as a Goodfellas-style ensemble crime drama soon morphs into a Taxi Driver-like profile of one disturbed and violent man, and the portrait of the meat-market underworld that the early scenes promise never quite comes into focus. And the aforementioned comic-relief characters, a pair of dim-bulb Francophone mechanics, seem like refugees from a different film, a broad comedy about the divide between the Flemish-speaking and French-speaking cultures in Belgium. That’s a movie I might like to see, but I don’t know that I need to see it interwoven with a dark drama about masculinity and meat.
A little less than halfway through the movie it becomes clear that the outcome of the crime story, like Jacky’s personal fate, has already been determined by past events; as he tells us in a grim voice-over, “No matter how long ago it was, there will always be someone to bring it all back. Because no matter what you do or think, one thing is sure: You’re always fucked.” All this fatalistic gloom can get a little ponderous, especially when aided by the strings in Raf Keunen’s soundtrack (which swell so often that if feels as though they got a hormone boost themselves). But Nicolas Karakatsanis’ murky, earth-toned cinematography makes the misty fields of Flanders look both pastoral and menacing, and Schoenaerts—who put on about 60 pounds of muscle to play this not-at-all-gentle-but-still-strangely-lovable giant—is simply a wonder: Even surrounded by strong supporting performances (especially Perceval as the weaselly Diederik and Barbara Sarafian as a no-nonsense cop,) it’s Schoenaerts’ magisterial presence that carries the film. In between bursts of convincingly horrific violence (including a fight in an elevator that makes Ryan Gosling’s in Drive look like a schoolyard tiff), Schoenaerts also shows himself capable of moments of great subtlety and delicacy. I hope we'll be getting another chance to watch Matthias Schoenaerts' work in the near future—as huge as he is in this role, I suspect there's plenty more to see.