Bullhead must have been one hell of a tough sell. How did they pitch it? “A junky rancher gets mixed up with a ruthless cow hormone mafia. Meanwhile, he reconnects with the gay police informant who was the sole witness of an unspeakable childhood trauma. And it happens in Flemish Belgium!” Whatever they did, it worked. Written and directed by first-time Michael R. Roskam, Bullhead is an elegantly made downer, working its potentially ridiculous subject into the painful, rather fatalistic story of a man whose life is arrested by a freak act of adolescent cruelty.
Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts) runs a cattle business with his family and daily injects himself with a mix of illicit sex and growth hormones. The drugs and his (literal) childhood scars keep him in a state of barely caged aggression. As the film unrolls, his grip loosens. His behavior escalates from shadow boxing half-naked in his dimly lit bathroom to dunking a car thief in manure to eventually brutalizing a harmless nightclubber, who just happened to have flirted with the girl he likes.
For a movie that opens with the narrator declaring, “No matter what you do, you are always fucked,” it’s no surprise that Jacky finds doom closing in all around him. For one, the police are on his tail. The murder of a cop investigating the cow hormone smugglers who supply Jacky with the stuff he injects into his steers puts him on the radar of two detectives. It also brings him face to face with his shifty childhood friend, Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), now all grown up and sprouting the grimy mustache of a movie lowlife. A hormone trafficker turned informant, Diederik’s wearing a wire for the detectives to help trap the hormone gang. As the dragnet tightens around Jacky, he also runs into what will truly be his undoing: Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), his childhood crush, the sister of his childhood nemesis, and whom he begins to stalk. He’s the Flemish version of the downtown guy, she’s the uptown girl from a Francophone family that looks down on his rough clan.
Bullhead is an example of technically proficient, intelligent adult filmmaking, but one which is perhaps a bit guilty of belaboring the point. The filmmakers don’t quite bludgeon you over the head with the parallels between Jacky and the cattle he pumps dangerous chemicals into—but they do at least gently slap you in the face with them. It’s never offensive, but it’s rarely subtle. But the fault doesn’t lie with the performers. As Jacky, Schoenaerts captures all of the boyhood shyness and anger that seem so perverse to be bottled within such a towering man in his thirties. The movie also belongs to Perceval, who brings life to every scene he’s in. Perceval even has something of an early Gene Hackman vibe—a balding, not terribly striking man, who gives the impression of having an inner life whose roots extend far beyond the screen.