Movies about violent thugs are commonplace, but how many really manage to get under the skin? A story of murderous cattle barons and their scheming lackeys, the Belgian film ‘Bullhead’ is a crime story, with all the police informants, black-market deals and sudden acts of violence the genre demands. But there the similarities to your average monosyllabic-lunk-with-a-heart movie ends, because this is also a character study on a par with ‘Raging Bull’ (the overlap in the title is surely not accidental). It’s a film of insight and boundless sympathy, and one of the most impressive feature debuts in recent memory.
Matthias Schoenaerts (‘Rust and Bone’) plays Jacky, whose family business is trading in illegal hormone-enhanced beef. Jacky is an enforcer – childhood trauma and longtime steroid abuse have left him emotionally crippled but physically Herculean – though there’s more to him than heft: he’s also a shrewd operator, not that his family always notices. When a cop investigating the beef trade is knocked off by Flemish gangsters, Jacky is thrown back together with his untrustworthy childhood friend Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), and the shadows of their brutal past begin to deepen.
Schoenaerts’s performance is the heart of ‘Bullhead’. It would’ve been easy to play Jacky as a simple animal, bruised but defiant, but thanks to Schoenaerts he’s so much more: a man whose entire life has been a litany of barbaric acts and heartbreaking disappointments, far beyond his ability to control. He’s superbly backed by Percival in a less showy but equally demanding role, the snivelling weasel who needs, at last, to stand up and be counted
Both as writer and director, Michaël R Roskam is incredibly confident: the dialogue is terse but illustrative, the plotting compulsively knotty. The look of the film is grey and moody, enhanced by a series of gorgeous, placid landscape shots. And if the script occasionally verges on the overdetermined – one intense speech towards the end leans towards the heavy-handed – it’s easily forgiven in the face of everything the first-timer gets right, from a series of shocking and original flashback sequences to a vicious, devastating climax.
An Oscar nominee for Foreign Language Film (last year – it lost to ‘A Separation’), ‘Bullhead’ may have taken its time to reach UK screens, but it richly deserves to find an audience: this is heartfelt, old school filmmaking which, like its embattled hero, comes out swinging and leaves a lasting mark.