If I were to sum up my feelings about this film in two words, they would be “grimly fascinating.” Bullhead is the dark horse in this year’s Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film, a sleeper from Belgium that has won acclaim around the world. Part of the response comes from the excitement of discovery: an unknown writer-director making his feature debut, and creating a gritty crime story (with strong emotional currents) set against an unlikely backdrop.
Michaël R. Roskam’s film wastes no time introducing us to modern Belgian dairy farmers, whose matter-of-fact usage of growth hormones for their cows is matched only by their acquiescence to the gangsters who control this drug trade. A turf war inadvertently causes two men to meet for the first time in twenty years; this in turn prompts a flashback to explain how an incident in their boyhood changed their lives forever.
I am deliberately leaving out details so that you can experience the full impact of the story yourself. The leading character, a bull-like figure played by Matthias Schoenaerts, is caught between reminders of his painful past and a bleak outlook on the future. He knows that the stage is being set for a showdown and it isn’t going to be pretty.
Roskam’s screenplay ties everything together metaphorically, comparing the use of drugs on farm animals with the frightening effect that similar pharmaceuticals have on his protagonist. Tension mounts as we watch this hapless fellow try to find some glimmer of normalcy in his life, knowing that he is bound to explode. It’s just a question of when.
Because the story’s climax is as inevitable as a Greek tragedy, Bullhead loses some of its dramatic momentum in the last act. But there is no question of its potency or originality; this is no ordinary crime yarn. The only remaining question is whether or not you’re prepared to spend two hours with such an uninviting (but not uninteresting) cast of characters. Hope is nowhere in sight, only misery.