Bullhead has all the makings of an extremely good movie. At times, it even feels great — just unique and purposeful enough to make you believe you’re watching something truly inspired. And yet it keeps getting itself tangled up trying to be both a cheeky, plot-heavy crime film and a gut-churningly intense character study. Of course, its intention is to be both, but it can’t quite handle the mashup of the tones it’s chosen.
It’s set in Flanders, in the fields of northern Belgium that you see idealized in the paintings of Pieter Breughel the Elder, but it has no intention of being an ode to a beautiful countryside. In fact, it goes far in the other direction, deep into the underworld of Flanders’ illegal bovine hormone trade. As will develop in any community — especially, it seems, an idyllic one — when there’s money to be made and product to be controlled, the Flemish in Bullhead have developed a mafia to protect and enhance their bread-and-butter product: cattle. Flanders, innocuous and tourist-y as it appears on the surface, is teeming with lowlifes angling for a slice of the livestock-and-steroid trade. The biggest and baddest of them is Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), the steroid-addled son of a cow-farming dynasty.
Jacky first appears — in the film’s staggeringly immediate opening sequence — as a threatening bruiser, wagging his muscular finger in the face of a dairy farmer from whom he extracts tribute. It turns out, however, that Jacky’s a mess of contradictions. When he’s not out shaking down farmers, he can be found curled up in the fetal position in his family’s bathtub, recovering from shooting steroids; or shadow-boxing naked, trying hopelessly to ignore the shame of a particularly painful secret he’s carried for most of his life. Meanwhile, outside of the bathroom, in the pubs and race tracks and farming stalls where he holds court, there is no room for weakness, and Jacky has to work overtime to compensate.
Jacky is a fascinating character, and he undoubtedly deserves his own movie. In fact, the main problems in Bullhead occur when the focus shifts from him to the machinations of the “Flanders hormone underworld,” specifically to the scheming of Diederick (Jeroen Perceval), Jacky’s estranged childhood friend, fellow hormone thug, and the only person outside of Jacky’s family who knows his secret. Diederick is caught up in a mess of trouble with the Flemish police, who are not only after Jacky and his family, but also a gangster Diederick works for, who has gunned down an anti-mafia cop. It’s fun keeping pace with the swiftness of an ever-tightening plot, as far as Diederick and the cops are concerned, until the movie weaves back towards Jacky, and you remember that his psyche is what this is all supposed to be about.
Eventually, to tie it all together, the movie goes haywire and crescendos in one of the most sustained sequences of illogically motivated mayhem since Taxi Driver. Unfortunately for a character as bizarre and magnetic as any in recent movies, Jacky is left exactly where you would expect a brooding European crime movie to leave its protagonist. Alongside the amazing trio A Separation, Monsieur Lazhar, and Footnote (I haven’t seen In Darkness), Bullhead has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film by the estimable Academy. If it wins, it will have beaten out at least three films that are much, much better — but they’re also films missing something that Bullhead most certainly is not: a pair of balls waved right in the audience’s face.