Flemish scribe-helmer Michael R. Roskam certainly has cojones; his feature “Bullhead,” a crossbreed of hormone-mafia thriller and intense character study, is unusually ambitious for a first film. Though the story is told and edited in a way that too often obscures rather than enhances its central tragedy, much is compensated by a career-defining, powerfully physical lead perf by Matthias Schoenaerts and ace lensing by local widescreen wiz Nicolas Karakatsanis. Already doing boffo biz at home since its Feb. 2 release, the pic should be able to translate its Berlinale exposure into some international action, despite a thoroughly local frame of reference.
The screenplay, also by Roskam, is inspired by the famous mid-1990s murder of a Belgian veterinarian who continued to check up on farmers regarding the suspected use of illegal growth hormones on cattle, even after being repeatedly threatened. The people behind the assassination were dubbed the “hormone mafia.”
However, the pic uses the case only as a jumping-off point for a new tale set in the present in provincial Limburg, the easternmost province of Dutch-speaking Belgium. The protag is the seriously beefed-up, pent-up Jacky (Schoenaerts), who works on the family cattle farm. His veterinarian buddy, Sam (Frank Lammers), tries to convince him to close an illegal deal with a local meat magnate, De Kuyper (Sam Louwyck). But since a cop investigating the hormone mafia was recently killed and the culprit hasn’t yet been found, Jacky hesitates to get closer to De Kuyper. Should De Kuyper be investigated by the police, Jacky, who has some skeletons of his own in his closet, could come under scrutiny, too.
This storyline — which comes complete with a police investigation (strangely arrived at) and the generic trappings of a rural potboiler — could have been a film along the lines of efficient but unexceptional Belgian cop thrillers such as “Dossier K.” But several leisurely and initially disorienting flashbacks to Jacky’s childhood suggest the real subject isn’t the hormone mafia at all, but Jacky himself, who’s portrayed as a traumatized, flawed figure.
“Bullhead’s” structure doesn’t really know how to accommodate both character and narrative, going back and forth seemingly at random, with the thriller elements getting in the way of the piecemeal portrait of Jacky. Roskam and editor Alain Dessauvage lack the finesse of the team behind local gold standard “The Memory of a Killer,” which so cleverly combined a plot-driven thriller with exceptional characters.
Here, there’s only one fully rounded individual, with all others reduced to stock types,such as two bumbling, French-speaking car mechanics (Erico Salamone, Philippe Grand’Henry) responsible for getting rid of the murderer’s car. Designed as comic relief, they undermine the almost noirish tone of the rest of the film.
The main reason “Bullhead” remains watchable throughout its two-hour-plus running time is Schoenaerts. The Flemish thesp (“My Queen Karo,” “Loft”) delivers a mesmerizing perf despite the fact that Jacky, with his bursts of violent rage, vacuous eyes and animalistic physicality, is never sympathetic. Other thesps are boxed in by their underwritten parts, though Jeroen Perceval impresses in the second lead as a childhood friend of Jacky’s.
Aside from its overreliance on slow-motion to convey the importance of certain scenes, lensing is aces, and Raf Keunen’s dirge-like score amplifies the moody atmosphere. Regional accents are so thick they’re subtitled even for the pic’s domestic release.