out of Five
Running time: 124
Powerful, hard-hitting and deeply upsetting, this is an emotionally engaging, Oscar-nominated Belgian thriller with a riveting central performance from Matthias Schoenaerts, though it rambles a little whenever he's offscreen.
What's it all about?
Directed by Michael R. Roskam, Bullhead (or Rundskop, original language fans) stars Rust and Bone's Matthias Schoenaerts as Jacky Vanmarsenille, a cattle farmer-slash-enforcer caught up in the murky world of beef-doping, who also secretly injects himself with the same testosterone-enhancing drugs his family use on their beef. When a policeman shadowing a rival beef-doping gang is killed, both Jacky's connections and their competition come under suspicion, leaving everyone on edge.
Meanwhile, the reappearance of Jacky's old friend Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) forces Jacky to confront a tragic incident in his childhood that holds the key to his current state. His past reawakened, he tracks down Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), a woman that he once had a crush on as a boy, and attempts to connect with her.
Matthias Schoenaerts delivers a powerful and complex performance that plays an intriguing game with our sympathies. When we first meet him, he's intimidating a client into buying beef from his family; we then see him injecting steroids and assume he's just a muscle-bound thug, perhaps afflicted with ‘roid rage’; it's only later that the full tragedy of Jacky's situation becomes clear and we root for him to succeed, even if that particular outcome seems increasingly unlikely.
There's also strong support from both Perceval and Dandoy as well as some amusing comic relief from Erico Salamone and Philippe Grand'Henry as two dopey mechanic brothers who inadvertently implicate Jacky's family in the murder by selling on tyres from a car they were hired to destroy.
Roskam creates a suitably gloomy atmosphere throughout, heightened by Nicolas Karakatsanis' impressive cinematography and, presumably, a deliberate decision not to film if the sun was shining. In addition, the film has a strong sense of place, with the script exploiting tensions between the French-speaking Walloons and the neighbouring Flemish, often to darkly comic effect.
Roskam orchestrates a number of powerful scenes, most notably a devastating flashback to a brutal act of violence that has a shattering effect on the rest of the film, in that it immediately changes what you initially think the film is about. The only problem with the film is that it gets a little bogged down in its increasingly irrelevant plot and consequently drags considerably whenever Schoenaerts is offscreen.
Bullhead is a well made, powerfully emotional Belgian thriller with a tremendous central performance from Matthias Schoenaerts. Recommended.