It only makes sense that geek-friendly Drafthouse Films would be behind the distribution of Belgium’s Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee “Bullhead.” Sparse and unnerving, this unusual social drama features a central character so pulpy and tragic he might as well be a barmate of Mickey Rourke’s Marv of “Sin City.” Jacky (Matthais Schoenaerts) is a drug dealer high on his own supply. That drug isn’t cocaine or heroin, but synthetic steroids. As a cattle farmer, he’s got to keep his animals pumped and beefy. What does it matter if he becomes a brooding, hormonal, muscled beast as well?
Jacky, tragically, is overcompensating. A violent encounter with a local bully when he was young robbed him of his testicles, and he’s been forced to become a slave to pills and injections to keep his testosterone levels up. It’s telling when Jacky’s parents voice their gravest fear to the doctor: is he going to be gay now? It’s caused the now-adult Jacky to spend his days doing business, his nights lumbering about in his underwear, listlessly shadowboxing and repeatedly stumbling to the fridge for another injection.
Seeking upward mobility for he and his family, Jacky meets with local mob bosses to expand his empire beyond questionable livestock. Rural and somewhat simple, his eyes go red when he learns that, to these mob bosses, a few lives lost becomes collateral damage and heat from the cops is an almost weekly event. Sloppy and undisciplined, they nonetheless put Jacky in too deep, forcing the thick bruiser to crawl his way out, despite a barely existent newfound social life only further crippling him sexually.
Adding a certain level of complexity to these crises of conflict is an undercover cop named Deiderik (Jeroen Perceval), infiltrating the operation. While he finds himself in league with these butchers and thieves, he’s trying to keep his hands clean, while also seeking an out for Jacky, obviously the one person involved who wishes ill on no one. Further complicating matters is his hidden homosexuality, which surprisingly manifests itself when he develops a covert rapport with a henchman who registers mutual interest. As the negotiations continue with a sexually aggressive heterosexual female boss (Jeanne Dandoy), Deiderik shares sideways glances with his secret lover, with the possibly false promise of settling down “when this all blows over.”
The operatic manner in which tragedy overcomes Jacky, and how he reacts, recalls the darkest of recent revenge-centric Korean dramas. Jacky is nothing if not the noble brute, handicapped by his massive physicality and innate sensitivity, but there‘s never any doubt that he is our hero, even if the ugliness of revenge swallows him whole. Like a combination of Tom Hardy in “Warrior” and Arthur the aardvark, Jacky enters rooms shoulders and fists first, slowly revealing his somewhat-touched hangdog expression. He’s the movie’s most compelling element, and also what hamstrings its dramatic impact.
The dimensionality provided by Schoenaerts in this role can’t be underrated. In a film underlit during the day, and cast in shadows at night, his unsmiling expression finds a highlight in those sad eyes, distinguishing him from the cadre of blood-sucking opportunists he deals with. He’s beautiful and fascinating to look at, which just stacks the deck when our villains are exactly that, crowing to themselves in dark rooms, leveraging lives and cash with an equal amount of passion. A second act encounter with a woman from his past feels shoehorned in, as if Jacky needed to be proactive about something. Given that his opening monologue pretty much spells out that this won’t end well for him (in very Marv-ish terms), it feels like transparent misdirection.
Michael R. Roskam has made a striking debut picture, with inky blacks and captivating shadows capturing a number of indistinguishable downtrodden farms. You can almost smell the animal droppings and stale hay as characters move from farm to farm, talking business, using coded terms for what’s always going to be dropping profits. It’s capitalism at its most bleak, but Roskam never lets you forget these are real places populated by real people, their worlds clouded and contaminated by off-product animal stimulants. Roskam keeps it real, in other words, but he also keeps it ugly. But those on the margins become overshadowed by our mustache-twirling villains. Schoenaerts’ Jacky is a memorably brutish character, but the hope is that he can eventually be matched with someone with an equal amount of dimension. [B-]