Accolades are rightly pouring in for this riveting Belgian film, an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film and, for some of us, easily the best film seen at the recent Santa Barbara International Film Festival. But the recommendation comes with a caveat: This stark tale of dirty, bloody dealings in the Flemish meat market is not for the faint of heart or violence-phobic. Interestingly enough, though, the film is less violent than it seems. The power of forceful suggestion and the machinations of this thrillingly filmic film make it seem pumped up with artistic steroids, the end result of which is a steady aura of dread and impending violence, mixed with a poignant subplot about love and innocence lost.
We quickly get a clear sense of our angry-young-man protagonist, cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille (the hulking Matthias Schoenaerts, in a tour-de-force performance), who in the opening scene stomps toward a fellow farmer and delivers intimidating demands about whom he should be selling his milk to. We have no doubt, from the beginning, that he is capable of extreme prejudice and retribution, which makes him especially volatile once embroiled in the film’s central plot, about the nasty “bovine growth hormone” mafia. He is literally a testosterone addict, the backstory for which is revealed halfway through the film and casts a wholly different and more sympathetic character on Bullhead‘s tormented antihero.
Partly what makes director Michaël R. Roskam’s film so powerful, though, is the way he creates a delicate balance between the narrative forces. He plays with the duality between his main character and the artificially amped-up livestock, the manipulation of meat, tissue, and the unseen, but clearly felt, biochemical aspect of life. Bullhead is a story that plays like a tragedy of both mythic and realistic proportions, and Roskam expertly summons a kind of dangerous grandeur whereby the main triumvirate of expressive energies come from Schoenaerts’s presence, composer Raf Keunen’s brooding string scoring, and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis’s suitably tough and elegant visual scheme.
Suffice it to say, this is a very different kind of crime/mob film, far from the Hollywood model and indigenous to the Flemish meat world. Not incidentally, it is also a potent cinematic poem about body chemistry and humanity gone very wrong.