If you see only one movie about the Belgian bovine hormone mafia this year, make it "Bullhead."
The film, which was nominated for a best-foreign language Oscar, opens with a tough in a leather jacket intimidating a terrified citizen. Only instead of taking place in some blighted bodega, the shakedown happens in a rustic Flemish cattle farm. And instead of demanding protection money, the thug, Jacky Venamersenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), is bullying the farmer into juicing his cattle with illegal steroids. Jacky is a hulking beast of a man who not only pushes the stuff but also dopes himself up with a bewildering variety of growth hormones. The reason why becomes horrifically clear as the movie's plot unfolds.
When a shady veterinarian sets up a meeting with another band of hormone-slinging ranchers from West Flanders, Jacky runs into Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), a balding, twitchy guy who seems like he has a lot of secrets. One happens to be that he is a police informant. Another is that he was Jacky's childhood friend and was intimately involved with an incident two decades prior that profoundly traumatized Jacky, leaving him a broken, angry man. The event, which is thankfully not graphically depicted, is all but guaranteed to leave every male audience member shuddering. The sight of his old friend sent Jacky into a tailspin fueled by scarring memories and frustrated longings for the French-speaking woman, Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), he loves from afar.
While director Michael R. Roskam does a fine job ratcheting up the tension in his first feature, the really remarkable thing about "Bullhead" and the reason, I suspect, it got the nomination, is because of Schoenaerts's fearless performance. He reportedly spent two years putting on 50 pounds of pure he-man muscle for the part. It's a feat of physical transformation that recalls Robert De Niro's improbable metamorphosis in "Raging Bull." Like De Niro's La Motta, Schoenaerts's Jacky is a brooding, barely civilized hulk who might stumble over his words but who is unnervingly articulate with his fists. The fact that much of Jacky's emotions are almost entirely internalized speaks volumes to Schoenaerts's talent.
Like any good crime story, "Bullhead" is a portrait of a culture at its grubbiest. I must confess that I've not given much thought about the tense and complicated political situation in Belgium, which is split between the French-speaking Walloons and the Flemish. It's not inconceivable that the country will break apart like Czechoslovakia in the near future. And in the context, it's not hard to see "Bullhead" as something of a metaphor: a wounded and angry man from Flanders seeking a union that is on every level impossible with a beautiful Walloon. The broken-hearted expression on Schoenaerts's face speaks louder than any news article about the region ever could.
See the trailer for 'Bullhead':