Competing for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar, the Belgian entry Bullhead is pretty much what experience has taught me is a characteristic example of filmmaking from Belgium—a dark, gruesome, sickening but extremely original work that is both repellent and fascinating. It’s about a vicious, bullying cattle farmer named Jacky who swings a shady deal with a Mafia meat trader that results in the murder of a federal cop investigating the use of illegal hormones in meat-packing plants. Jacky is played with ferocious power by coarse, craggy newcomer Matthias Schoenaerts, whose brawny, menacing swagger masks a sad, desperate emptiness that reminds me of the first time the screen unveiled the terrifying impact of Ralph Fiennes’s Nazi camp commander in Schindler’s List. Jacky has the same bulk, constantly pumped on injections of hormones and steroids to hide a devastating secret. Twenty years earlier, when he was a kid, he was assaulted by a brute named Bruno Scheper, who smashed his genitals with a brick. Jacky has spent his life trying to look and act masculine, overdoing the testosterone to grow a beard, expand his chest and get a deep voice and ripped muscles as a masquerade. Meanwhile, his family has held a grudge against the Scheper family, not only for what they did to destroy Jacky’s manhood, but for their mob connections, which have struck fear in everyone who opposes them. Jacky’s best friend, Diederik, was the only witness, but his father forbade him to tell the cops the truth. It all went down in the books as an accident. But Jacky has been waiting all these years for revenge and redemption, and the dirty-meat double-cross is fate surfacing at last. Now he has a chance to put the Schepers away, at the same time reconnecting with Lucia Scheper, an old flame who is the sister of the notorious Bruno, with his old friend Diederik, who is a homosexual informer in love with one of the cops he’s working for, and with Bruno himself, who is now a mental patient.
You can’t accuse Bullhead (the title refers to both the abattoir where Jacky slaughters the bulls and to Jacky himself, since he identifies with the animals he injects with hormones) of being hackneyed. The labyrinthine story, with a myriad cast of sinister characters, including two crooked mechanics who switch the tires on the BMW that is involved in the murder of the hormone investigator, is so complicated and overplotted I can’t even describe it with clarity. I can tell you only that this is a film unlike anything I’ve seen before—harrowing, haunting and sordid. Be forewarned, it is not for the squeamish. But take a chance and you will be rewarded with a work of nightmarish force that is unforgettable.
Running Time 124 minutes
Written and Directed by Michael R. Roskam
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval and Jeanne Dandoy