As with most modern gangster pictures, the plot of the Belgian import Bullhead involves illegal drugs, though Michaël R. Roskam’s low-boil thriller (an Oscar nominee this year for Best Foreign Language Film) isn’t about pot or coke or meth. It’s about “the hormone mafia,” a Flemish criminal consortium that supplies big commercial cattle ranchers with shots that bring cows to full maturity in eight weeks instead of 10. Matthias Schoenaerts plays a ’roided-up beef-industry lackey who ordinarily has no trouble with the mafia, but takes issue with his uncle’s new business relationship with a known cop-killer, especially once he learns that one of the men he’ll be dealing with is Jeroen Perceval, a former friend. Schoenaerts doesn’t trust Perceval, because at a crucial moment when they were pre-adolescents, Perceval failed to come through for him, and Schoenaerts has been suffering the painful repercussions of that failure ever since.
Bullhead’s bovine milieu makes a familiar tale of posturing tough guys stand out, but it’s also crucial to the emotional texture of Roskam’s story. This is a movie about animal behavior: men butting heads with each other, looking to mate, and waving their literal and metaphorical genitalia around to prove themselves. Bullhead bears some similarities to the recent stylish crime sagas Bronson (in that it’s essentially a character study, driven by a volatile lead performance) and Animal Kingdom (in that it’s about a macho world in which everyone’s watching everyone else, trying to suss out weakness). But the movie has its own vibe, as Roskam and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis work some remarkable effects with lighting, making Schoenaerts look simultaneously bulky and small, and as Roskam has his characters grunt at each other and move through sliding doors, on their way to the slaughter.
Also, Roskam’s hero takes shots to artificially enhance his manhood, which is the detail that ultimately gives Bullhead its hard edge. Following an excruciating flashback to the moment the young Schoenaerts learned how cruel people can be, the movie becomes less about the machinations of the gangs and the cops and more about Schoenaerts’ feelings of inadequacy, and how they lead him to punish the world. Bullhead is well-plotted, with a powerful ending, but its most brutal scene comes early, explaining why for Schoenaerts, life has been one long wince.