Those of you who read my coverage of Fantastic Fest 2011 may remember me telling you to get very excited for a surly little Belgian gangster film called Bullhead and its brilliant caveman leading man, Matthias Schoenaerts. There were a lot of amazing dramas at FF last year, but Bullhead managed to conspicuously stand out even amongst stellar company, winning the Next Wave awards for Best Pictures, Best Director and Best Actor. Now it has nabbed itself both a nomination for the Best Foreign Language Oscar and an American theatrical release from Drafthouse Films.

The film is set in the tiny yet ethnically complicated country of Belgium where the Dutch-speaking Flemish co-exist peaceably, though certainly not without some prejudice, with the French-speaking Walloons. The film follows the similarly complicated story of the Dutch-speaking cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille (Schoenaerts). Jacky does not look like a nice man. A crooked and pronounced nose, asymmetrical heavy-lidded eyes, a gorilla’s build, with massive but untoned muscles and an inclined, slump-shouldered posture. He doesn’t behave like a nice man either. We’re introduced to our “hero” as he brutishly threatens another cattle farmer with scary Sopranos-esque intimidation, then goes home to pump himself and his cattle full of illegal steroids. The events of the film are set in motion when Jacky’s uncle makes a business arrangement with a West Flemish beef trading organization (the Vanmarsenille family is in the East) that has brought heat on themselves for killing a federal policeman. The partnership reunites Jacky with Diederik Maes (Jeroen Perceval), a boyhood friend who is currently functioning as a mole for the feds’ investigation into illegal beef hormones. The crux of the film and Jacky’s personality hinges on a painful (both physical and emotional) incident from he and Diederik’s past, one that severed the former best-friends’ relationship and sent Jacky down the path where we’re now joining him. Seeing Diederik surfaces a storm of past emotions for Jacky that cause him to seek out a Walloon girl he had a crush on as a boy, Lucia Schepers (Jeanne Dandoy). Then bad, serious shit ensues.

It is hard to talk with complete accuracy about the film and the character of Jacky without revealing the particulars of his painful past, but I do believe the flashbacks revealing the backstory are all the more powerful when you don’t know what is coming. So let’s just say that his scarring childhood left him with deep and somewhat insurmountable feelings of emasculation. And herein lies the film’s thematic essence. The Vanmarsenille clan injects their animals with drugs to cheat nature, to transform them into beefy monsters. Jacky has systematically done the same with himself. He is a cretin and a beast. A recurring image in the film (one used for the poster) is of Jacky, after having juiced himself with an ever increasing dosage of steroids and similar drugs, standing alone and naked in his room, aimlessly punching at the air. There no grace to his jabs, no boxer’s form here. Just frustrated and angry violence, like a penned animal with no room to burn off its energy. Matthias Schoenaerts’s embodiment of this beast is utterly captivating — all the more so once I learned that Schoenaerts had to go through a year of bulk-building to play the character. Schoenaerts is fearsome, in the way a great “bad man” performance needs to be. He seems truly capable of anything, which fills the film with uneasy tension. You pray for Jacky’s sake, and those around him, that he keeps his cool. Which he almost never does. I have to imagine it took little effort on the part of the film’s other actors to appear uneasy around him.

A film just about this character, backed by Schoenaerts’ portrayal, would be engaging to watch, regardless of what Jacky was doing. He could have made an amazing henchman to any Bond villain or mob boss. What turns the character and Bullhead into something special is that writer/director Michael R. Roskam makes you pity the character. He understands that the biggest bullies are reacting to something akin to social physics, they are lashing out because there is a pained imbalance within themselves. The magnitude of the “incident” that shaped Jacky’s life does not excuse anything he does in the film, but it changes our reaction. As does Jacky’s timid, bordering on adorable attempts to woo his old crush Lucia. Jacky is like King Kong. You just want him to stop eating New Yorkers so the army won’t have to kill him and he can win Lucia’s heart and be a normal person. In this way, despite all the gangsters and policemen and beatings, Bullhead plays like a romantic tragedy. This is felt most acutely in the film’s most powerful sequence, a series of scenes in which Jacky follows Lucia to a dance club in a juvenile attempt to get in a conversation with her. The sequence progresses from charmingly cute, when Jacky is forced to get a fancy shirt to gain access to the scenster venue, into uncomfortable comedy as Jacky proceeds to get extremely drunk instead of talking to Lucia, despite the fact that he has zero fear of confrontation with any man he happens to meet. Things then shift to a rom-com vibe when Lucia confesses to a friend that she is finding Jacky’s nervous stalking at the club endearing; maybe a fling with a big gorilla could be fun. Then things crescendo in upsetting disaster when Jacky perceives that another man is interested in Lucia, and wince inducing Flemish violence is unleashed.

The film pulsates with energy most when Schoenaerts is on screen — the Diederik snitch plotline comprises a lot of the film, yet Schoenaerts will consume all your memories. But the film also marks the emergence of another serious talent to be excited about: Michael R. Roskam. Bullhead marks Roskam’s first feature film, but he deploys himself with a┬ávicious expert’s agility. The script is quite good, but it is as a director that Roskam seems to have the most presence. There are hints of Scorsese in how Roskam approaches his characters and scenes, especially in the way that he injects humor into the film without ever compromising the drama or tension. The Filippini brothers, two bumbling mechanics who inadvertently find themselves at the heart of the fed’s investigation when they’re given a vehicle containing evidence of the West Flemish murder, are all comedic relief. And the relief is welcome. A scene in which the Filippini’s are questioned by the police is crafted as high comedy, and it is just what we need to break the tautness that will have built up in your gut as Jacky spirals into a clusterfuck of woes largely of his own making. Like Scorsese, Roskam has a talent for building emotions over the course of the film, but with an ability to give us breaks of levity to make the ride nonetheless enjoyable.

Rating:
★★★★½

Out of a Possible 5 Stars