Published on February 27, 2013 | by Rowan Curtis

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Livestock, steroids and large shoulders

Matthias Schoenaerts

Bullhead marks Michael Roskam’s directorial debut. [Image: Nicolas Karakatsanis]

★★★★★

Michael Roskam’s stunning directorial debut combines the murky world of meat tampering in the criminal underworld with an excruciating journey into self-destruction.

Bullhead explores the highly original theme of farmers and crooks in rural Belgium trafficking illegal hormones to alter their livestock’s weight and salability.

After an investigating policeman is killed, the criminals and farmers alike are thrown into a frenzy of suspicion and plotting that threatens both their livelihood and freedom.

However, what seems to be a run of the mill foreign crime thriller soon reveals itself to be a very personal account of emotional torture shown by the titular main character.

Matthias Schoenaerts’ gritty portrayal of Bullhead, or Jacky as he is more commonly referred to, is not dissimilar to Robert De Niro’s seminal performance in Taxi Driver (1976) or Ryan Gosling’s star-turn in Drive (2011).

Jacky, a peasant farmer prone to violent rages, brings a brutally physical presence to the screen that perfectly depicts his inner turmoil, his rigorous exercise regime and steroid abuse are scenes that strangely coincide with the themes of genetic tampering. It is clearly a role that the actor had an enormous task of bulking-up for.

With moments of wince-inducing violence and an underlying sense of bleak desperation, this Flemish masterpiece really packs a punch.

Haunted and physically scarred by a traumatic event in childhood, Jacky is a man of few words, emotionless to the outside world but carrying wounds that extend beyond the surface.

Throughout the film, there is the sense that this is a drowning man caught up in a world he does not quite understand despite his bullish and cavaliering approach.

At times the complex plot requires a high level of concentration and the scenes involving the many other characters tend to seem slightly plodding in the beginning.

However, that is perhaps testament to Schoenaers’ outstanding portrayal of a deeply flawed anti-hero that wears the weight of the world on his face and indeed his extremely large shoulders. It proves to be a remarkable performance and one that carries the film to a heart-stopping finale worthy of international recognition.

Moments of wince-inducing violence and an underlying sense of bleak desperation make this Flemish masterpiece really pack a punch.

 

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