Dave White
Bullhead Review

Dave's Rating:

4.0

Meat is murder.

Finally, an answer to the question "Who wants to watch a movie about a physically traumatized, steroid-addicted farmer who also works as an enforcer for the Belgian cattle hormone mafia?" That answer is, "You do."

Life hasn't been good to Belgian cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts). A debilitating childhood injury has led to his adult dependence on harsh steroids, he's a brooding hulk of a man in a northern European country where that sort of Jersey Shore-like physique isn't appreciated by the local ladies ("he's too... sturdy," says one of them), he's involved in increasingly dangerous activities with the rural cattle hormone black marketeers (that's a thing, by the way, because Belgian food regulations prohibit bovine growth hormone) and his fits of rage and subsequent depression usually leave him curled up miserable and drunk in the bathtub.

The story, from filmmaker Michael Roskam, is a bleak succession of time shifts between Jacky's current involvement in the criminal underground, a career that will have dire consequences for him and his family, and the destiny-sealing act of brutality that set him on that road in the first place. In the middle of this a woman from his childhood re-enters his life, a chance encounter that only serves to remind him how stunted and hopeless that life has become. Uplift isn't in the cards here, so if it's happy endings and personal growth you love, just back away slowly.

Schoenaerts, who is reported to have gained nearly 60 pounds of muscle over the course of several years in preparation to play Jacky, gives the kind of Tom-Hardy-in-Bronson breaththrough performance often recognized by groups that give out awards for that kind of thing. And his doomed cattle-hand thug is a heartbreaking creation that'll stay with you after the crime story angle is forgotten, the kind of character that would frighten you in real life but on screen fills you full of Frankenstein monster empathy.

Roskam, too, is a skilled filmmaker who steps back from obvious, easy choices. He's not afraid to narrate outside of genre lines: he throws in a men's fragrance subplot, a gay mobster-turned-informant chasing a romantic dalliance with a cop, and more than you ever thought you needed to know about the tensions between Belgians who speak Flemish and those who speak French. More importantly, he fixates on shots of meat in all its forms, whether it's a cow giving birth via c-section, frozen slabs of beef used as gifts or threats and burning steaks standing in for the danger lived by low-level stolen goods fencers. And he manages to juxtapose his thick-necked anti-hero against it all without stooping to dopey cause-and-effect moralizing or cheap explanations of How He Got This Way. Because in the end it doesn't matter, only that he's here and moving toward his own sad, inevitable end.

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