When critics talk of works of cinema where “testosterone oozes from the screen”, they’re usually describing some machismo-laden action flick. That same terminology feels perfectly apt for Michaël R. Roskam’s Belgian crime yarn Bullhead (Rundskop, 2011), although it exists as a literal interpretation here, particularly in the case of its superlative lead turn from Matthias Schoenaerts. He plays cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille, a rural mob enforcer who is employed by the local criminal network to ensure farmers around the region are using illegal hormone enhancements to fatten up their livestock which will drive profits.
A burly, mountain of a man (he’s been given the titular moniker), Jacky appears more animal in nature than human. He’s a simmering ball of suppressed rage which stems from a tragic childhood incident and the fact that he, too, is stock-piling steroids for his own use. The murder of a federal policeman working on the case coincides with the resurfacing of figures from Jacky’s past, including his boyhood chum Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) – a fellow criminal type who is also masquerading as police informer, and a woman inextricably linked to the reason behind his current condition.
Following a limited UK theatrical release earlier this year (the film was actually nominated for an Academy Award in the foreign language category back in 2012), anticipation for Bullhead has been building for quite some time. Rest assured, the film proves to be worth the wait. Despite the inherently pulpy, explosive material, Roskam (whose upcoming US debut Animal Rescue co-stars Schoenaerts) never opts to lay on the style for the sake of it, and instead stages an slow burn thriller, whose wintry, pastoral milieu makes for an even more compelling and unique experience.
Jacques Audiard’s Rust & Bone (2012) may have thrust Schoenaerts in the international spotlight, but this is the film in which he truly possesses an unpredictable, Brando-esque magnetism. He’s both a wounded and ferocious figure, and a scene where he physically butts heads with a former adversary offers an almost indistinguishable line between man and beast. At its heart, Roskam’s Bullhead is a tragic, portentous character-study. Like its protagonist’s hulking presence, it’s the type of meaty, gut-wrenching cinema which will leave a lasting impression long after you’ve seen it.