If only there were more of the bullhead in Bullhead. Writer-director Michael R. Roskam’s debut, a Best Foreign Film nominee from Belgium, starts intriguingly, with a voiceover over blackness: “Sometimes in a man’s life, stuff happens that makes everyone go quiet. So quiet that no one even dares talk about it...because no matter what you do or think, one thing is for sure, you’re always fucked.”
We then meet Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts), a cattle farmer with a minifridge full of ’roids for both himself and his animals. We see him strong-arm a former client into buying his meat again and then, a bit later, freaking out during a meeting with...some people. They’re making a shady deal—that we know for sure. And it’s likely related to a recent murder, as well as what a news anchor calls the “hormone Mafia underworld.” There’s some business about a stolen car with a bullet hole and whether that automobile has its original tires. So: Things are rather murky.
Then we flash back 20 years earlier, when Jacky was a child. Turns out a horrible thing happened to him, an event that led him to take testosterone out of necessity. So he’s been doping all this time, and it’s not exactly his fault.
Whenever Jacky’s the center of the narrative, Bullhead is compelling. Schoenaerts, who bulked up to bruiser proportions for the role, nevertheless has a boyish, Tom Hardy quality about him. A subplot has him nervously approaching a woman (Jeanne Dandoy) he sorta knew when they were kids, only she doesn’t immediately recognize him. It’s sweet—at least until it’s clear he’s stalking her. A nightclub scene is especially disturbing, as Jacky gets wasted and violent when he sees her with another man. That’s Schoenaerts’ great trick here: He’s terrifying while demanding our empathy.
But the film keeps returning to that deal and the folks involved in it, losing all momentum as the details pile on while the characters remain stubbornly ill-defined. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of plaintive music that which quickly becomes irritating as you try to figure the story its desperately wants to render as profound. Still, as a character study, Bullhead succeeds. If Academy Awards could go to half a film, it’d be a winner.