An Oscar nominee as best foreign-language film, Bullhead (from Belgium) apparently took the spot that should have gone to Miss Bala from Mexico, a much better film. Now it's receiving a limited American release two weeks before the Academy Awards.
Bullhead is tough stuff -- but not the most coherent film you'll see this year. A look into the dimly lit underworld of chemically enhanced cattle farming in Belgium, it's really the tale of Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), a bulked-up cattleman who gets involved in this shady world.
Jacky seems like your typical candidate for 'roid-rage: oversized muscles, an affinity for steroid injections, a short temper. He gets involved in a deal to sell illegal drug supplements that will increase cattle growth in shorter times, while flushing out of the cows' system so quickly that they're undetectable.
But as he enters this realm, his personal warning buzzer goes off: He knows one of the flunkies on the other side of the transaction from a tragic moment of his own youth. Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) was a pal when Jacky was a preteen -- and was there the day that a slightly older thug caught and attacked Jacky, altering his entire future with one cruel and vicious act.
As a result, Jacky has been forced to take testosterone all of his life. He's become something of a loner, running the family cattle business and now getting involved with criminals (who have created problems for themselves by killing an undercover cop who was on to them). But bumping into Diederik triggers something in Jacky, who goes looking for those who changed his life forever that day in his youth.
Writer-director Michael Roskam jumps back and forth in time, between the current Jacky, a bullish presence, and the young Jacky, handsome and innocent. But the older Jacky is inarticulate, or maybe it's that he mostly speaks Dutch and isn't nearly as articulate in French (two of the three official languages in Belgium) which is what's spoken in the circles Jacky tries to infiltrate. Schoenaerts is an imposing figure, but a vulnerable one. Still, though Roskam creates tension, he also assembles a plot so sketchy that it seems mostly to be an excuse to plumb the depths of Jacky's sadness.
The resonance between the steroids for cattle that Jackie deals in and the steroids he himself takes can't be ignored. In a sense, this is a movie about what it means to be a man and how one defines masculinity. Yet Roskam's script is too thin, doodling in the criminal subplot as a way of pulling Jacky out of his insular existence dealing with cows and reconnecting him with his past. It feels almost like filler, a chance to graft a story involving a relatively unknown demimonde on to an individual's tragic tale.
Schoenaerts gives a movingly inarticulate performance, but the film itself is a mix of the half-baked and too-convenient. Ultimately, Bullhead could have done with Roskam juicing the story the same way these guys juice the cows.
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