Belgium’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2012 Academy Awards, Michaël Roskam’s Bullhead (Rundskop, 2011) finally receives a UK theatrical release thanks primarily to its star Matthias Schoenaerts’ critically acclaimed performance in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (2012). Schoenaerts plays Jacky Vanmarsenille, a young cattle farmer who finds himself involved with the notorious West-Flemish ‘hormone mafia’. In an industry where meat is more valuable than gold, the illegal use of growth hormones on livestock has violently escalated, culminating in the death of a local federal policeman.
Jacky finds himself in deeper than he could possibly have imagined, both with the law and his own addiction to the same bovine testosterone treatment used on his livestock. Tense to the point of physical revulsion, a tragic childhood flashback reveals the roots of Jacky’s dependency and explains his deflated masculinity. Paralysed by fear, insecurity and a deep-seated romantic obsession, Jacky’s reliance on steroid treatment has built him into a towering behemoth of aggression, creating a raging bull of anxious fixation and an unpredictable cocktail of muscle, emotion and hormonal instability.
Roskam’s film is a stylish, undeniably gritty European noir. However, its real grandeur lays at its core, with Jacky’s internal struggle by far the film’s most captivating element. Schoenaerts’ belligerent, yet benign demeanour creates a fascinating character full of hidden complexities and a labyrinth of emotional dead ends. Without the use of steroids, Schoenaerts cultivated 27kg of muscle mass for the role, yet behind this seemingly impenetrable sculpture of potency he still manages to reveal a frail and damaged centre – a vessel of calculated rage and torment, whose bulky flesh ripples with repressed emotion that threatens to detonate at any moment. Indeed, Schoenaerts’ performance alone is enough to make Bullhead necessary viewing.
Sadly, whilst all eyes are drawn to its rising star, Bullhead is far too desultory. Instead of focusing solely on Jacky’s inevitable decline, Roskam takes a convoluted route, imbuing elements of noir, crime fiction and issues of Flemish nationalism to a tale that works best served raw. Further impeding the film’s flow is the addition of a pair of bumbling car dealers that only acts to dilute the oppressive atmosphere so carefully constructed in the film’s more intimate and tender moments. Indeed, Roskam appears to have bitten off more than he can chew, swamping what could have been a fascinating study of a man’s struggle with obsession and vengeance (like a heavily distorted version of Moby Dick) in cursory details that fail to reverberate with the same brute strength as the film’s colossal protagonist.
A remarkable performance from Schoenaerts and some visual flourishes aside, there’s little denying that this disorderly excursion into the depths of the male psyche is a far too drawn-out and meandering affair. Bullhead’s dossier into masculinity is a gristly and volatile experience that evokes a concoction of disgust, confusion and awe, but it also arguably outstays its welcome.