The trailers for Bullhead, Flemish writer/director Michael R. Roskam's debut feature (and a nominee for Best Foreign Film at this year's Oscars), place its thriller angle center stage--it dwells in the murky "hormone mafia underworld" (direct quote), in which livestock are illegally juiced by farmers and meat magnates to get bigger, faster. But Roskam is pulling a bit of a fast one; the crime stuff is almost entirely window dressing for the odd and personal story at the core of the picture.
The more pressing concern is Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts), a muscled-up family cattle farmer who, it is slowly and carefully revealed, has a very specific and personal interest in hormone injections. He is courted by a local meat kingpin, De Kuyper (Sam Louwyck), but Jacky is hesitant to get involved, particularly because a cop investigating hormone trafficking has recently been murdered. That killing, its specifics, and the police investigation of it provide additional flash; this is a busy story, filled with footnotes and sidebars that don't always add up. But the density of the narrative makes the film at least superficially richer, even if it does take a bit of time to get straight who's who, who's done what, and why. (I suspect that this, like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is a film that requires a second viewing for the sake of clarity.)
Ultimately, this is Jacky's story, told with a fluidity of time and an unflinching proximity. Schoenaerts is a giant, terrifying actor, but he conveys a vulnerability that contradicts his massive physical presence; you're not always sure exactly what he's doing, and he doesn't always do the right thing, but he is a figure of tremendous audience sympathy (and curiosity). Schoenaerts never plays for that sympathy, however; in retrospect, it's not entirely clear how he manages to put across a personality, since the performance seems so singularly opaque. I think it has to do with his rhythms; everything he says and does is just a beat or so behind everyone else, giving us a sense that he's constantly thinking, constantly considering, and often regretting.
Roskam adopts a grimy aesthetic that unifies well with the picture's ultimately nihilistic world view (the introductory voice-over ends with the bon mot "You're always fucked," which isn't the cheeriest opening salvo). He's got a simple, unassuming style, most scenes played straight down the middle, but punctuated by bursts of cold, brutal violence. If he's guilty of occasionally leaving audiences in the dark, he provides a helpful (and stylish) filling-in-the-blanks section to kick off the film's final quarter, and with those questions answered, the closing sequences unfold with a heavy heart and sad inevitability, yet with a sustained urgency as well. The final moments intertwine the past and the present wistfully, and the closing mood is a bit more bittersweet than expected. Bullhead wanders a bit, and it could have used a bit of tightening, pace-wise. But it provides an ideal showcase for an exciting new filmmaker and an accomplished actor worth keeping an eye on.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.