With his first feature, Michael Roskam has delivered an assured and attention-grabbing debut that sits comfortably alongside Matteo Garrone's GOMORRAH and Daniel Espinosa's SNABBA CASH as one of the most original crime films in recent memory. Roskam exposes the shady Belgian beef industry as a world run by gangsters and opportunists where corruption, hormone peddling and even murder have become all-too-common occurrences. Within this unlikely, but always fascinating setting, the film hones its focus on the very personal tragedy of a single, profoundly troubled individual and his ongoing struggle to embody the macho persona he so desperately projects.
As with any business, the beef industry is competitive and dependent on a consistent and reliable supply. When a shady veterinarian offers the family-run Vanmarsenille cattle farm the opportunity to strike a profitable deal with a notorious Flemish beef trader, it seems an unmissable opportunity to set them up for long-term profit. However, nephew and primary enforcer Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts) stalls the deal when his new business partners are implicated in the murder of a police officer and the arrival of an unwelcome face from his past forces him to address a long-buried personal horror.
Much like the cattle he tends to so passionately, the insular, lumbering Jacky is also artificially enhanced, entombed in a body enhanced by a chronic testosterone addiction which has lead not only to him injecting increasingly large and unhealthy doses of the hormone into his body each day, but perpetuating his already deep-seated paranoia and personal insecurities. Jacky hides the truth about his identity in much the same way these gangsters parade themselves as legitimate farmers. Nobody is who they appear to be, not his family, friends, not even the cows themselves, the industry, or Roskam's film.
For all its film noir tropes, BULLHEAD is really a story of personal tragedy and the turbulent efforts of our deeply flawed anti-hero to accept himself and have others do the same. The film's greatest irony is that its strongest character is also its weakest and for all its industrial intrigue and police procedurial elements, the real conflict takes place within the mind and body of a deeply insecure and enraged man looking for someone to take out his anger on. Schoenaerts' performance is an entirely convincing depiction of the kind of broken, hulking masculinity De Niro won an Oscar for in RAGING BULL. The entire film rests upon Jacky's broad, lumbering shoulders but with just a few expressions and only a handful of discernible lines of dialogue, he creates a riveting and emotionally challenged character that we care for even as he intimidates the crap out of us.
With a deftness that seems at once effortless and painstakingly conceived, Roskam's script reflects a very personal deception within a much grander charade that defines an entire industry and affects an entire nation. It is the story of a personal tragedy enveloped within a national crisis, a story that feels both universal and deeply personal. BULLHEAD wrong-foots its audience in the most exciting and assured ways, defying viewers' expectations as adeptly as Denis Villeneuve's devastating INCENDIES, and likewise is a film that deserves to be approached cold, hence the vague nature of this review. The resulting film, however, is a strong, confident and assured thriller about lies and deception that is both deeply vulnerable and achingly fragile.