Film Review: Bullhead

Despite a compelling lead performance, this Belgian Foreign-Language Oscar contender is something of a tedious slog.

Every Oscar cycle, you can always count on seeing a handful of nominees that are genuinely inspired choices and another batch that just inspire incredulous looks. (The rest are straight-down-the-middle ho-hum.) This year, the latter category includes such questionable decisions as a Best Picture nod for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the nomination of an entirely forgettable tune from the entirely forgettable animated feature Rio for Best Original Song and Best Adapted Screenplay recognition for George Clooney’s other, considerably less successful 2011 release, The Ides of March. Add onto that list the Best Foreign-Language Film nomination that was bestowed upon the Belgian drama Bullhead.

Obviously, Academy members—as well as the juries at the various film festivals where the movie has played and garnered a fair amount of acclaim and awards—see something in writer-director Michaël R. Roskam’s debut feature, but darned if I can make out what exactly that is beyond the admittedly striking presence of leading man Mattias Schoenaerts. As a piece of drama, though, Bullhead is overwrought, contrived, and often carries a faint whiff of absurdity.

Schoenaerts stars as Jacky Vanmarsenille, the hulking, tormented proprietor of a small cattle farm. Of course, you would be tormented too if you were saddled with his horrific backstory. As a child, Jacky was attacked and severely injured by a mentally unstable teen. Because nobody was willing to cross the attacker’s father, the kid went unpunished. As an adult, Jacky self-medicates by shooting himself up with a variety of hormones that he keeps in a small refrigerator in his bathroom. While those injections have given him the ripped, intimidating physique of a prizefighter, the shame he feels about his condition has caused him to shut himself to even the possibility of love.

Jacky’s not the only one on the farm going through hormone treatments. His cattle are also regularly injected with illegal growth hormones acquired by the so-called “hormone mafia,” a real-life organized crime syndicate that still operates in Belgium. Jacky has just agreed to a deal with an unscrupulous local meat dealer when a cop that’s been investigating the black-market hormone trade is murdered and his colleagues step up their efforts to crack the syndicate and arrest the person or persons responsible for his death. One of their key assets in the case is Jacky’s childhood friend—and a witness to his attack—Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), who now serves as a police informer and comes to realize that the cops are looking to pin the murder on Jacky. Meanwhile, the oblivious cattle farmer is focusing his energies on pursuing Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), the lovely clerk at a local perfume shop who also happens to be the sister of the teenager who attacked him 20 years ago.
he latter subplot is easily the least convincing element of Bullhead (marred both by the dramatic convenience of Lucia’s identity and by Dandoy’s flat performance), but really, the entire movie lacks sufficient spark. Even Schoenaerts’ performance, which is intended to serve as the beating heart of the narrative, threatens to become one-note after a certain point. While the actor’s physical presence is undeniably impressive—he reportedly put on 60 pounds of muscle for the part—Jacky is a character defined so thoroughly by his past tragedy that, as an adult, he’s almost a cipher. And when his bottled-up emotions do finally burst through in the film’s final half-hour, they’re dominated by a wounded male pride that reads as more self-pitying than sympathetic.

As for the business involving the hormone mafia, it’s interesting in concept, but far less so in execution, as Roskam’s script doesn’t award the supporting players much in the way of distinguishable personalities. On the other hand, he does demonstrate a strong visual sensibility behind the camera, offering a convincingly bleak vision of this rural farming community populated by victims and the victimized. And maybe that’s what fans of the movie, both inside and outside of the Academy, are responding to along with Schoenaerts’ committed star turn. For this viewer, though, Bullhead suffers from hanging those positive attributes on a thin, unconvincing narrative.