PLOT: Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a hulking brute of a man. A cattle rancher by trade, his family has deep connections to the trade of illegal growth hormones in Belgium, which, unbeknownst to him, has made them the target of a police operation. Their chief informer is Jacky's childhood friend, Diederik, with whom he shares a painful secret from the past.
REVIEW: For the first half hour of BULLHEAD, I assumed I was watching a down and dirty crime film- uniquely set against the trade of growth hormones, the use of which is highly illegal on cattle in Belgium. Up to this point the film was an efficient, slickly made thriller, but I was a bit confused as to why BULLHEAD found itself among this year's crop of best foreign film nominees at the Oscars.
But then, the other shoe dropped. Turns out, BULLHEAD is only peripherally a crime film, with it actually being a surprisingly sensitive character study centring around Schoenaerts' complicated portrayal of Jacky. To look at him, Jacky looks like little more than thuggish muscle- with a hair trigger temper that makes him quick to violence. He spends his nights alone in his room, loading himself up on steroids and testosterone, but despite his violent streak, there's something almost boyish and innocent about him.
It's revealed early on that Jacky is more of a victim than anything else, with an early flashback revealing to us that as a boy, he was cruelly castrated by the demented son of a neighbouring farmer. As such, he was given testosterone- but it's turned into a terrible addiction that, coupled with the trauma of his youth, has rendered him totally unbalanced, and incredibly dangerous to anyone that happens to provoke his wrath.
As a character study, BULLHEAD is absolutely riveting from start to finish. Jacky is a fascinating character, played brilliantly by the Flemish Matthias Schoenaerts, in what's without a doubt a breakout role. While the more genre worthy parts of the film are interesting (everything you'd want in a crime film, including beatings, shootings and double crosses, are here)- it's the quieter scenes focusing on Jacky's inner turmoil, and his deep shyness around women (driven by the fact that his injuries have likely made him unable to perform sexually) that really make BULLHEAD stand-out.
A particularly interesting subplot involves Jacky's pursuit (or rather, stalking) of a young woman, who it turns out, is the sister of the boy who castrated him as a youngster. Jacky's not stalking her out of a desire for revenge- with his motivations being far more innocent, even if the results of his infatuation could have potentially deadly consequences. What interesting is that the girl is made aware early on as to exactly who he is, and rather than be afraid of this hulking man that's following her around, she tries to deal with him compassionately.
Indeed, it's extremely compelling stuff, and by the time the credits rolled after the shocking, unpredictable finale, BULLHEAD left me shattered. It really is a brilliant film, and I'm impressed that the Academy had the balls to nominate something so challenging and provocative for the best foreign film Oscar.
Now that BULLHEAD is finally making it's North American debut, hopefully more people will sit up and take notice of this incredibly fine film, which heralds the arrival of two major new talents in star Matthias Schoenarts, and director Michael R. Roskam. While it's maybe not the easiest film to watch, it's truly an unforgettable, astounding piece of work.